Harold Brighouse wrote his heart-warming tale of the boot hand pulled up in the world by his bootstraps through the love of a good woman in 1914/15, although he set it in 1880, the year his parents became engaged. A product of the Manchester school of drama inspired by local life, it’s set in the Salford of his childhood.
An almost comic take on King Lear, it charts the uneasy relationship between selfish alcoholic Hobson, proprietor of Hobson’s Bootmakers, and his three daughters. In their flight from his domination into the arms of their chosen partners, they’re led by Maggie, the eldest. She’s determined not to remain on the shelf at thirty, despite her father’s best endeavours to keep her at home, so he can live off sales and business acumen that would make her Alan Sugar’s uncontested choice!
Alice and Vickey need Maggie’s intervention to get their men - a lawyer and merchant respectively. But far-sighted Maggie spots the potential in the down-trodden boothand Willie Mossop, who is to shoe-making what Mozart was to opera. One of the joys of this delightful fable is to watch his transformation from wimp to winner, thanks to the unstoppable Maggie.
So there’s a lot riding on Maggie and in Timothy Sheader’s faultless production Anna-Jane Casey delivers the goods. Her beautifully-judged performance gives full rein to the bossiness that carries all before her, while revealing all the emotion, vulnerability and capacity for love underneath.
She’s equally matched by Paul Kemp’s touching, put-upon Willie, growing taller before our eyes under Maggie’s tutelage and John Branwell’s Hobson, getting the balance between monstrous and loveable just right, especially as he descends into alcoholic ruin. Rosalie Craig as Alice and Natalie Casey as Vickey (yes, Natalie and Anna-Jane are real-life sisters) successfully paint young women as being as pretty and vivacious as they are snobbish and dim. Along with Paul Foster and Mark Bixter, just right as their aspiring fiancés, they provide perfect foils for Maggie’s quick-wittedness.
Brighouse peoples his world with vividly-drawn cameo roles to further the plot. In this strongly-cast production, everyone seizes their moment. Thanks to Marianne Morley and Suzanne Toase respectively, we quickly get the measure of satisfied customer Mrs Hepworth, who’ll play her part in Maggie and Willie’s future, and drippy Ada, Willie’s fiancée, who will not… Later, Robert Vahey’s faithful foreman Tubby makes a comic apron-clad nurse for Hobson, Robert Benfield a genuinely devoted drinking mate and Jack Mackenzie’s brisk Morningside medic is a real tonic.
Designer Jessica Curtis manages to create three convincing period interiors with one flight of stairs. And the production managed to make me laugh and cry.
- Judi Herman