Hobson's Choice (Open Air Theatre)

Nadia Fall’s revival of Harold Brighouse’s play features a stellar cast including Mark Benton

Jordan Metcalfe as Albert Prosser and Mark Benton as Henry Hobson
Jordan Metcalfe as Albert Prosser and Mark Benton as Henry Hobson
© Johan Persson
Harold Brighouse’s vigorous comedy of an overbearing, drunken shoe-shop owner, Horatio Hobson, and his three daughters, was set in the 1880s, written in 1915, and is now updated (but not re-written) by director Nadia Fall to the 1960s, quoting two songs of the modern era, Frank Sinatra singing "That’s Life" and the Beatles’ "How Do You Do What You Do To Me?" (I wish I knew).

It’s not a big interpretative shift except in one crucial respect: Maggie Hobson’s brutal takeover bid – of dad’s business and Willie Mossop, the hapless cobbler ("You’ll do for me", she says, matching her brains with his skills) – is genuinely subversive in late Victorian/Edwardian times, and merely comic and inevitable in the 1960s.

The makeover is not half as radical, or challenging, as was the Tanika Gupta/Richard Jones version at the Young Vic ten years ago, which translated the action to a textile emporium with a Muslim/Hindu sectarian divide.

Nor does the play, which is a sort of Salford, domesticated King Lear, gain much from its outdoor setting, and certainly far less than other modern classics in the Sheader regime such as The Crucible, Lord of the Flies and To Kill a Mockingbird.

“Fall’s production is so strong, and so well cast, it blows away most objections”

But Fall’s production is so strong, and so well cast, it blows away most objections. Mark Benton as old Hobson is a mountainous, dissolute old toper, yelling for his dinner before heading off for another session in the Moonrakers and falling into the cellar of a neighbouring corn-merchant on his return.

Jodie McNee is a blazing furnace of tactical determination as Maggie, a fearsome prophet of the dominion of women. She exploits the mishap in the cellar to her advantage, enlisting the merchant’s son, Freddy Beenstock (Leon Williams), and the lawyer, Albert Prosser (Jordan Metcalfe), to wangle dowries for her sisters.

Those sisters, Vicky and Alice, are nicely contrasted by Hannah Britland and Nadia Clifford, and all three represent a dangerous sort of "uppishness" to Hobson since their mother died; does he really say that their skirts are so short he can see their breakfasts?

The hinge of the play is mild little Willie, sexually timorous and unassertive ("I’d really rather wed Ada Figgins, if it’s all the same to you", he tells Maggie) and a bit of a wet. Karl Davies tweaks this stereotype into a more interesting specimen of someone biding his time; he’s actually attractive and charming to start with, not really a worm who turns.

Ben Stones‘ design is a revolving cut-out, with jagged edges, of what could be Coronation Street, and the 1960s tunics and suits are spot-on without being emphatically "swinging"; the big warm heart of the play beats healthily throughout, with neat little cameos from Joanna David and Richard Syms, and Benton creating a tragic tyrant very much in the mould of Charles Laughton in the great David Lean movie.