Writer: Harold Brighouse
Director: Jonathan Church
Reviewer: Dave Smith
It’s 100 years since Harold Brighouse’s ever-popular Hobson’s Choice premiered in the UK, having surprisingly first been produced in New York a year earlier, and as director Jonathan Church departs the Chichester Festival Theatre after 10 years for his new role as Artistic Director for Sydney Theatre Company, he leaves us – courtesy of Theatre Royal Bath Productions – with this high-quality version of this most British of comedies.
Salford cobbler Henry Hobson runs his business from his favourite pub, leaving his three daughters, unpaid and underappreciated, to look after the shop, while Foreman Tubby Wadlow manages the shoemaking side. Business is booming, thanks to Maggie’s talents at selling and accounts, while in young Willie Mossop, Hobson has on his hands an uncommonly skilled bootmaker. Stung by his comment that at 30 she’s too old to be married, Maggie decides enough is enough and realises that her future is best served by combining the talents of Willie and herself in both business and marriage – regardless of what young Willie thinks – and going into direct competition with her father. One year later, with all three daughters now married, all his customers gone, and driven to both alcoholism and the edge of bankruptcy, Henry is forced to call on Maggie and Willie to save him, but is the price for their help too high?
This is a big show, with big production values, a big set, a big cast and a big performance at its centre. Martin Shaw, not exactly known for his comedy, tackles the beer-driven bluster and bullying of Henry Hobson with gusto in what is as crowd-pleasing a performance as you’re likely to see.
Most of the rest of the laughs are given to Bryan Dick as the dim but talented Willie Mossop, helpless in the face of the determination of Maggie to transform his life. Whether it’s being made to stand up to his new father-in-law and old boss, or literally dragged by the thick of his ear into the marriage bed, his face is always a picture of resignation at his inability to control his own destiny.
Maggie may be on the stage for the longest, but it’s not an easy role, given that it’s essentially one for whoever is playing Hobson and Mossop to feed off and get the laughs. Nonetheless, Naomi Frederick plays her with just the right level of tight-lipped determination and clear-sighted ruthlessness. The rest of the cast flesh the piece out nicely.
Simon Higlett’s set is superb. Both Hobson’s shop and Willie and Maggie’s cellar look beautifully authentic and detailed, but his finest moment is a splendidly imaginative use of a rotating stage at the start of Act 4, a moment that on its own makes the evening worthwhile.
Hobson’s Choice is not a challenging piece of theatre, and this is in many ways as safe a production as you’re likely to see. Nevertheless, there’s a reason it’s been a mainstay of British theatre for the last 100 years, and that’s because it’s an entertaining play that’s hard to get wrong. Get it very right, as has been done on this occasion, and it makes for a very enjoyable night out.
Runs until: 26 March 2016 | Image:Nobby Clark