Hobson’s Choice occupies a unique place in British drama. It’s good to find Al Senter writing in the programme that it is “by common consent” a masterpiece. It’s probably the only play of the highly influential Manchester School of about 100 years ago to attain that status. Other plays by Harold Brighouse are certainly worth revival, but Northern Broadsides’ recent production of The Game (very enjoyable, not a masterpiece) reminded us there is only one Hobson’s Choice. It’s time for a top-class revival of Stanley Houghton’s Hindle Wakes, but I doubt whether it will emerge as a challenger to Brighouse’s marvellous comedy-drama.
So what makes the King Lear of Salford so special? It is no doubt a neat plot. Henry Horatio Hobson, proprietor of a prosperous boot emporium in Salford in 1880, is more interested in drinking and debating with his cronies in The Moonrakers Arms than in running his business. Fortunately his daughter Maggie, an energetic and astute businesswoman, is in place, as is Will Mossop, an apparently slow-witted genius of a bootmaker. Hobson’s other two daughters aspire to comfortably middle-class marriages and the way Maggie achieves everyone’s wishes while still looking after Hobson’s best interests is ingenious, satisfying and very funny.
But Hobson’s Choice has so much more than that. A trio of wonderful central roles is supported by vivid and realistic cameos, some a mere two pages of text: for instance, Ada Figgins, Willie’s down-trodden fiancée, a tiny part, is a gift which Emily Aston accepts gleefully. The play’s tremendous humanity and the way comedy grows out of character make its funniest moments also its most moving.
Christopher Luscombe’s production is not perfect, but ultimately the magic of Hobson’s Choice works its spell. At the interval after two acts (the play is a four-acter) Barrie Rutter (Hobson) and Zoe Waites (Maggie) have offered interesting interpretations rather than completely inhabiting the roles. Rutter seems perhaps too far down the road to dissolution in Act 1, while Waites offers a slightly younger and more vulnerable Maggie than usual, appealing and effective, but also allows “thrilling” tones to intrude in the voice of British drama’s most down-to-earth heroine. The small parts, too, with the exception of Ada Figgins and Rod Arthur’s bumblingly loyal Tubby Wadlow, could benefit from sharper definition.
The second half disarms all criticism, even if Janet Bird’s handsome designs leave us with an over-spacious cellar for Willie and Maggie’s bootshop. Barrie Rutter finds all the humanity of Hobson and makes more of the alcoholic depressive of Act 4, desperately trying to cling onto status and dignity, than any previous Hobson I have seen. Zoe Waites eliminates any false notes and Philip McGinley is a Willie Mossop to treasure, underplayed, hitting all the laughs whilst enlisting the audience’s sympathy for his fears, aspirations and triumphs. With Robin Cameron making the most of his single scene as the irascible Scots doctor, the second half is 70 minutes of constant serio-comic delight!