Writer: Harold Brighouse
Adaptor: Tanika Gupta
Director: Atri Banerjee
Reviewer: May Mellstrom
Harold Brighouse’s 1916 classic comedy Hobson’s Choice, set in a Salford cobbler’s shop in 1880, last graced the stage of the Royal Exchange in 2003, mere months before playwright Tanika Gupta’s adaptation, featuring a present-day family of Ugandan Asian tailor’s, premiered at the Young Vic Theatre in London.
It may have taken sixteen years for Gupta’s version to travel back to Manchester, however, it certainly feels at home on the Royal Exchange stage. For this production, she has rolled back the years to 1987, a time when Margaret Thatcher was re-elected Prime Minister for a third term. Hari Hobson (Tony Jayawardena) is a staunch believer in old-fashioned conservative values based on social status and class. He is proud of his tailoring business but has little personal involvement, leaving his daughters to run the shop with no pay and spending his afternoons in the local pub.
Eldest daughter Durga (Shalini Peiris) is singlehandedly keeping both the business and household afloat, adopting a maternal role following the death of her mother. Consequently, she has become an intelligent and highly capable retailer with loftier ambitions for herself than a lifetime at her father’s behest. When he suggests that at the age of 30 she is too old to ever marry, she takes matters into her own hands, propositioning talented tailor Ali Mossop and setting up a rival shop nearby.
It is an assured main stage debut for director Atri Banerjee, who having graduated from previous positions as Associate and Assistant Director, has a clear understanding of how to use the space and keeps the comedy flowing throughout.
Jayawardena is convincing as Hobson; his outdated ideals and intimidating nature is enough to root for some form of comeuppance but there is also a world-weary humanity in the portrayal that ensures a pang of sympathy when this comes.
Peiris’s Durga has clearly inherited some of her fathers bossier traits, essentially bullying Esh Alladi’s flustered Mossop into agreeing to their marriage. Despite these beginnings, their relationship blossoms however into something quite touching, as she teaches him to read and write and instils a confidence in his own abilities.
Alladi is a comic stand out in a universally strong cast and his perfectly judged physical gestures and expressions get most of the laughs; whether it be from his endearing bewilderment at Durga’s plans to his ultimate transformation in her hands.
There is a colourful and vibrant feel to the whole production, which is embedded in Rosa Maggiora’s design and leads to a truly uplifting and entertaining finale. Gupta’s adaptation is consistently funny and the themes raised of familial duty and responsibility can be universally recognised across all cultures. It is not overtly political, yet provides a relevant and timely reminder of an occasion when a Conservative government welcomed thousands of refugees into Britain who have gone on to become an essential part of their local communities.
The title of the play Hobson’s Choice was taken from an expression dating back to the early 17th Century, typically used where there is merely an illusion of choice; the choice between something or nothing at all. In modern language it can be summed up in the phrase ‘take it or leave it’. If choosing whether to take or leave the opportunity to see this fresh and enjoyable production of a classic – take it.
Runs until 6 July 2019 | Image: Marc Brenner