Review: Hobson's Choice (Royal Exchange, Manchester)
Tanika Gupta adapts a new version of Harold Brighouse's seminal play
Hobson's Choice was written in 1915 by Harold Brighouse and set in a nineteenth-century Salford cobbler's shop. Playwright Tanika Gupta has successfully adapted Brighouse's story before, having previously penned a script for a production at The Young Vic, but this adaption for the Exchange is a little different. For the Manchester theatre, she supplants the characters to a 1980s tailor's shop in the heart of the northern city.
This is achieved with great success, with the change of setting feeling completely authentic from the outset. As the sound of New Order's "Ceremony" drifts throughout the theatre before the start, one gains a sense of time and place that only grows stronger throughout the production. When the play begins and the music is replaced by throbbing acid house, thoughts instinctively wander to The Haçienda and the Madchester heydays of this city. Arun Ghosh (sound designer and composer) deserves credit for these touches and the soundtrack overall, in particular the Indian bhangra music that accompanies livelier scenes. The stage is completely transformed in the opening seconds, as dusty covers are removed to reveal a brightly coloured shop with silks piled high. A portrait of Edward Heath, decorated with floral garlands, descending like a chandelier is a humorous touch. It is a magical opening and sets the tone for the remainder of the production.
The tale contains darker and tragic moments but a laugh is never too far away and Gupta's script is brought to life by a host of wonderful performances. It seems unfair to mention specific names when an entire cast is so strong but Shalini Peiris mesmerises from start to finish as Durga, the eldest Hobson sister. Intelligent and sophisticated, she appears every inch a modern feminist as she defies the strictly patriarchal rules laid out by her father. Tony Jayawardena is excellent as Hari Hobson, attacking his role with a physicality that is amusing in moments but also intimidating when necessary. The actor is responsible for the play's most intense scenes – watching Hari's relationships with his daughters dissolve almost entirely is a reminder of not only the character's blinding arrogance but also the dangers of alcoholism.
The production is unflinching in its portrayal of a range of societal problems; race, class, gender and generational issues are broached and done so with poise and lucidity. Hari's stories of being labelled a ‘Paki' and nearly beaten to death during his early years in Britain strike at the heart of the hideous racism that was simply a lived element of the immigrant experience. Despite his assertions that "This is a man's world", it is immensely satisfying to watch him outwitted by his three younger daughters. It is a relief however that Hari reaches something close to redemption.
In an epoch of increasing race hate and far-right thinking, the production acts as a poignant reminder of the wonderful diversity Britain has to offer in terms of tradition and culture. Durga and Ali's wedding scene, complete with saris, kurtas and small gifts handed out to the audience, shows that difference is something to be cherished and championed. It was a truly beautiful moment and there are many such like it in this superb play.