David Thacker's production of Hobson's Choice at the Bolton Octagon is faithful but too long, says Alan Hulme.
25 Jan 2014
Harold Brighouse, one of the early twentieth century Manchester School of playwrights – and its most prolific - wrote dozens of plays and several novels but this is by far his most famous piece, still revived more frequently than one might expect, largely because it's packed with bold characters and has a plot that includes a strong, before-its-time line on women's lib, as well as tying up all its strands and characters to audience-pleasing total satisfaction.
You simply want it to pan out the way it does and it does and it delivers, every time, being virtually director-proof. Which is just as well in this instance because this isn't one of the Octagon's classiest offerings.
Hobson's choice of course means no choice at all, which here, eventually, is mostly the case. We're in Salford, in the 1880's, specifically in the striving to be up-market boot-making emporium of one Henry Hobson, the father of three daughters, who work for him but are plotting their escape.
In a surprise move – it shocks the tyrannical, hard-drinking Hobson, as she is the daughter he can ill-afford to lose - the strong-minded and down-to-earth Maggie, 30, and thought to be on the shelf, marries the shy but gifted boot-maker Willie Mossop. He simply isn't given much say in the matter and Maggie waltzes off with him to begin the takeover of the town's boot-making business. And so on, if you don't know the outcome I'm not going to insert a spoiler here.
In this case it's a too-leisurely three-acter, with two intervals, and a running time currently coming in at around three hours. I've seen it slightly cut and shedding the second interval, to its advantage, but this is the full fat version which artistic director David Thacker will certainly get away with if he injects a good deal more pace into the proceedings.
What will probably still be a problem however is the uneven casting. The star of the show is unarguably Michael Shelford's loveably gormless Willie Mossop, who, I suspect, most of the certain age ladies in the first night audience would have liked to wrap up and take home with them. The cast is generous in size – a dozen and no doubling - but I wasn't entirely happy with any of the others. Nice frocks and suits, though.
Hobson's Choice continues at the Octagon until 22 February, then tours to Newcastle-under-Lyme and Oldham.