It seems strange, given Hobson's Choice position as a stalwart of amateur dramatic societies, how relatively few professional revivals of this play there are. It appears from time to time, but most people will know Harold Brighouse’s 1915 comedy, if they know it all, from the 1950s Charles Laughton film.
In some ways, it’s a piece ahead of its time: its depiction of the rise of a business-driven middle class and the entrepreneurial aspirations of Maggie and Willie Mossop would not have been out of place in the 1980s, let alone the 1880s. It’s also unusual to see such a strong female character as Maggie, a driving force in business and a determined wooer, written at a time when women hadn’t yet got the vote.
What struck me in watching Hobson's Choice afresh here is the strong resemblance to its exact contemporary: what we’re seeing is a version of Pygmalion with the sexes reversed. There’s none of the cynicism of Shaw and little of the politics, but Mossop’s transformation is at least as complete as Eliza Doolittle’s.
There’s another allusion - that’s more than hinted at - to that other Salford-set cultural icon, Coronation Street, which also, crucially, relyies on its strong female characters. Director Jonathan Church consciously acknowledges this by casting the Street’s John Savident as Henry Hobson. It’s an inspired choice as Hobson is a clear spiritual ancestor of Fred Elliot: the desperate need for social acceptance, the parsimony, it’s all here. Given the strong parallels, it’s perhaps unnecessary overkill to have Savident adopt one of Fred Elliot’s habits of repeat a phrase.
Brighouse’s play has scarcely dated: a tribute to the exuberance of the writing and the strength of the three leads. Church steers the production at a terrific pace, but while it’s amusing, there are scarcely any moments that make one laugh out loud.
The impetus of the play is the Maggie/Willie Mossop partnership, and Carolyn Backhouse and Dylan Charles make an excellent pair. Backhouse does well to capture the energy and determination of a daughter desperate to emerge from the shackles of a stifling home life. Richards is a Mossop whose business drive far outstrips his sexual one. There’s an entertaining pantomime as he prepares to enter the marital bed for the first time, his sexual reluctance a marked contrast to his already-emerging commercial spirit – an indication that this play couldn’t be anything other than British.
In fact, the whole evening seems to belong to the world of the comic seaside postcard: the genial drunk, the hen-pecked husband, the archaic vocabulary. Despite the play’s contemporary themes, it feels a bit like eavesdropping on vanished world – perhaps its sporadic appearances are not so strange after all.
- Maxwell Cooter (reviewed at Chichester Festival Theatre)