Writer: Harold Brighouse
Director: Nadia Fall
Reviewer: Scott Matthewman
Originally set in 1880, Harold Brighouse’s 1915 play Hobson’s Choice is just as much about the social changes afoot at the time of its writing as they were about life in 19th Century Salford. It’s partly down to that malleability of timeframe that makes the Open Air Theatre’s decision to relocate the era to the early 1960s work so well.
There are some inevitable anachronisms, which mostly revolve around the obligation of Mark Benton’s ale-soaked father of three young women to provide a “settlement” for each in order to be able to secure marriage for them. But in as much as the play is about rebelling against such an old-fashioned state of affairs, setting the comedy at the dawn of the sexual revolution ensures it just about gets away with it.
It also means that we are in the era of early Coronation Street, where the cobbled streets play host to families where the men may wear trousers, but the women are the ones holding all the strings. And it is in this context that the cobbler Hobson (Benton) finds his thriving business, his family and his social standing all under threat by underestimating his eldest daughter Maggie (Jodie McNee).
Maggie is a determined woman, refusing to be cowed by her father’s accusations that at 30 she is too “ripe” to be wed. She decides to take the shop’s young bootmaker Willie Mossop (an engaging Karl Davies) for a husband, and once he succumbs they set up a rival operation a few streets away. This is McNee’s play, and she excels: her Maggie is confident, steely, and verbally brutal – but also loving, in her way, and on her wedding night to Mossop displays a wordless vulnerability that helps cement the couple’s relationship as a true partnership. She is backed up by a winning performance from Davies, who starts off as a querulous apprentice before blossoming under his wife’s tutelage, just as her father declines in her absence.
In the title rôle, Benton cements Henry Horatio Hobson as one of life’s losers in a manner that is pitched at just the right level: always inviting sympathy, but never quite deserving of it. Content to drink away his days in the local hostelry, his increasingly dishevelled appearance matches Ben Stones’s set, a shop ripped from its surroundings like a corner ripped from a journal.
Some judicious of music to underline the generational upheaval – moving from a world of Sinatra and swing to the Tremoloes and the Twist – helps to cement the whole piece with a determined sense of time and place. And its final reworking of Gerry and the Pacemakers’ pop classic ‘How Do You Do It?’ into a slow ballad provides a conclusion which is as warm and satisfying as the whole evening.
Photo: Johan Persson Runs until 12th July