Hobson's Choice (Vaudeville Theatre)
For a play first performed in the UK 100 years ago, Harold Brighouse‘s boisterous comedy isn’t half progressive. A cautionary tale for would-be misogynists, it sees shoemaker Henry Hobson – a women-hating bully who spends his days drinking while his three daughters run his shop wage-free – thrown into turmoil when his eldest, Maggie, decides she’s had enough. Frogmarching the shop’s unsuspecting bootmaker, Willie Mossop, to the altar, she sets about shaping him, Pygmalion-style, into the man she deserves, while also setting up a business to rival her father’s.
Henry may be the play’s titular Hobson (and indeed Martin Shaw the show’s star turn as the curmudgeonly widower) but this is undoubtedly Maggie’s story – and Jonathan Church‘s lively centenary production makes sure she has plenty of room to tell it.
Such a production wouldn’t get far, of course, without an exceptional actress in the lead role, and Naomi Frederick is just that. Schooling and sorting all those around her with buckets of wit and not a jot of self-consciousness, she becomes a feminist force-of-nature we can’t wait to see triumph. Bryan Dick is the perfect foil as Mossop, flitting from abject terror to reluctant admiration as his new wife takes him in hand (look out for some glorious wedding-night dithering). Shaw, meanwhile, revels in Hobson’s drunken irascibility to gently comic, if not sidesplitting, effect, while the rest of the cast are uniformly strong.
The marks of the reliably brilliant Church are all over the production. There are the many moments of subtle but ingeniously wrought detail; an undermining puff of flour escaping from unkempt Henry’s jacket as he beats his brow in the midst of a self-aggrandising speech. And there is the perfect timing which makes each winning one-liner leap from Brighouse’s joyous script; the moment when Maggie bluntly explains that getting her own way is ‘just a habit’ resulted in a burst of mid-scene applause. Small elements, yes. But they are the difference between a comfortably comical night at the theatre and something altogether more delightful.
A mention must be made, too, of Simon Higlett’s design with its richly detailed and atmospheric sets, and its costumes, which are as clever as they are beautiful (Mossop’s wedding day outfit is a particular treat, for reasons which I’ll leave audiences to find out for themselves).
For those looking for a reassuringly classic comedy, this production offers all of the elements – an unlikely love story, an irresistible baddie, a consistent stream of great jokes – in an unquestionably well-formed package. But, under Church’s vision, it gives us something even better: an unapologetic representation of female empowerment. What better way to celebrate a drama that, even a hundred years on, is a refreshingly modern segment of the theatrical canon?
Hobson's Choice runs at the Vaudeville Theatre until 10 September.