Hobson’s Choice is a classic example of a situation where the man may rule but it is the lady who governs. And with Kinky Boots continuing to draw crowds at the Adelphi Theatre just a few doors away, how fitting it is that the Vaudeville Theatre should present a play set in a family run footwear business.
By far the most well-known of Harold Brighouse’s plays – I wasn’t aware of any others until I read a long article about him in the show’s programme – it’s delivered with such an equal amount of sweetness and strength that it’s no wonder it continues to be performed more than a century after its initial Broadway run.
Martin Shaw presents a hardened and battle-weary Henry Horatio Hobson in this production that retains its original setting in 1880s Salford. To have kept it as a period piece demonstrates this show as one beyond its time. A faithful rendering, unlike some other productions of Hobson’s Choice in recent years, the set is simply stunning, and impressively detailed even by West End standards, and worthy of applause in its own right. Dramaturgically speaking, I can see why the play is compared to Shakespeare’s King Lear – there’s a hesitance, for instance, in Vickey (Gabrielle Dempsey) and Alice (Florence Hall) to adhere to their father’s wishes, but ultimately the stories are very different.
Shaw’s Hobson is formidable but not exactly tyrannical. What he says is one thing, what he does (or rather doesn’t do) quite another: and eldest daughter Maggie (Naomi Frederick) is only too aware of this. When I read the script for the first time I came away with very different views as to the sort of characters Hobson and Maggie would be compared to how they are presented in this show. I had both down as more aggressive and confrontational. I suppose I should be glad I was spared the near-constant shouting matches I anticipated. But if Maggie is herself overpowering, asserting an influence over other characters as though she were everyone’s mother, she’s from the seed, as it were, and Hobson, being the sort of man he is, only has himself to blame. The character resemblance – like father, like daughter – is clear enough.
I was, therefore, more endeared to Maggie than I thought I would be, and the play’s overall subtle humour adds an extra layer to what would otherwise be a darker show. The trade-off to the play’s warmth is that the ending and general impact on its audiences is not as hearty as it could have been, and the crowning achievement of Maggie and her husband Willie Mossop (a very likeable Bryan Dick) come the end of the play was not all that spectacular. I also thought the show ended rather abruptly.
Still, that Maggie ultimately dominates proceedings from start to finish (to the point that I wonder whether Naomi Frederick’s name should be displayed on the large sign outside the Vaudeville Theatre alongside that of Martin Shaw) shows that Hobson’s Choice was probably subversive when it first opened. It’s not all ‘women’s lib’ before women’s lib came about, however: the character development in Willie Mossop is quite remarkable.
With no soliloquies and little sentimentality, it engages through a good-natured script and a talented cast. I would question whether all their accents were authentically Lancastrian (Ken Drury’s Dr McFarlane is distinctly off-the- hook, a Scottish character with a flawless Scottish accent), but overall, it’s a highly enjoyable production.
Review by Chris Omaweng
Harold Brighouse’s classic comic love story is the tale of a Salford cobbler with three unruly daughters that owes more than a little to King Lear and Cinderella. The homage is purely intentional.
Martin Shaw is one of the UK’s favourite actors, well-known for starring in Inspector George Gently, Judge John Deed, and The Professionals on television. His stage roles include Saturday, Sunday, Monday opposite Laurence Olivier; he was Tony Award nominated for An Ideal Husband on Broadway and won a Drama Desk award. Recent West End credits include A Man for All Seasons and Twelve Angry Men.
Christopher Timothy is best-known for his roles as James Herriot in All Creatures Great and Small and Mac in the BBC series Doctors.
Artistic director of the Chichester Festival Theatre since 2006, where his acclaimed productions have included Taken at Midnight, The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui and Singin’ in the Rain, Jonathan Church has recently been appointed Artistic Director of Sydney Theatre Company.
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