Jonathan Church's new production of the classic Hobson's Choice brings Tony Britton to the title role in a hugely entertaining and thoroughly absorbing tale of class conflicts, gender roles and family relationships.
Written in 1915 but set in 1880 in Salford, Lancashire, Harold Brighouse's play concerns the widowed head of a family bootshop who, assisted by his three daughters, makes a comfortable living providing quality footwear to the "carriage trade". The business is admirably run by the eldest daughter, Maggie, who at 30 is, according to Hobson, "shelved". Meanwhile, the two younger daughters, Alice and Vickey, provide nothing more than "window dressing" in their father's opinion. Hobson would love to rid himself of all his "bumptious and uppity" daughters but is too miserly to provide the necessary dowries. His answer to the problem, as always, is to repair to the local public house.
In a scheme to free herself and her sisters from their father's tyranny, Maggie (played with strong determination by Katharine Rogers) weds the lower working class master-bootmaker, Willie Mossop (who Michael Begley renders with enormous understanding). The couple set up in competition to Hobson's shop, eventually ruining it, while at the same time tricking the old man into making marriage settlements for the younger women to marry their sweethearts.
Hobson shows nothing but bitterness and spite towards his daughters and steadily descends into perpetual drunkenness and self-pity. Perhaps it would be detrimental to show Hobson as a more authentic alcoholic, as he is finally diagnosed to be. As it is, Tony Britton conveys the curmudgeon with such charm and dignity that sympathy for him is never lost and, to the audience's great approval and delight, all finally turns out well for him and his family.
Hobson's Choice is a beautiful period piece and far from dated in its themes. Hobson's hatred of lawyers is most readily recognisable, and a parent's inability to comprehend the fashion of their children is a timeless conflict. The unswerving resolve shown by Maggie in overcoming paternal dominance is a century ahead of its time.
All in all, this is good family entertainment, alternating hilarity with moments of intense tenderness. The play is peopled with very real and richly written characters - who are strongly drawn by the cast - and the Mancunian dialect is delightful. Considering the period, the bootshop seems remarkably uncluttered and lacking in ornate decoration, but Hayden Griffin's sets are interesting and attractive enough (although attention could have been given to distracting wing sightlines), and the authentic touches (especially the frying bacon!) don't go unappreciated.
- Annie Dawes (reviewed at Plymouth's Theatre Royal