Writer: Harold Brighouse
Director: Jonathan Church
You may be forgiven for thinking the London has developed a bit of a foot fetish for on the Strand in neighbouring theatres there are currently two shows about shoe-making. While the musical Kinky Boots has been delighting audiences and winning awards for the best part of a year, nearby in the Vaudeville Theatre the West End transfer of Hobson’s Choice from the Theatre Royal Bath has taken up a three-month residence starring veteran performers Martin Shaw and Christopher Timothy.
Hobson’s boot-makers is a byword for quality craftsmanship in Salford, but the shop is run by Henry Hobson’s three daughters who are all eager to marry and escape their wage-free existence. Maggie is the eldest and a force of nature, but at 30 her father thinks she’s on the shelf so she concocts a plan to marry Willie Mossop, a lowly bootmaker, and set up on their own. To help her sisters Vicky and Alice to advantageous marriages, Maggie must outwit all the men in their lives, but the consequences of her plans threaten the family business and her father’s health.
This is a creaking old boot of a show; it’s largely well-performing, comfortable and reliable, delivering everything you’d expect from an old favourite, yet at times your thoughts turn to the show down the Strand, yearning for the red shiny boots that suggest glamour and a bit of pizzazz. This production of Hobson’s Choice is nice enough, it’s cosy and conventional, offering a lovely rose-tinted view of the past full of cheery working class types, wonder women and cartoonish bullies. It does what it sets out to do perfectly adequately but it never really feels as though it has any fire in it.
There are frequent references to poverty and the snobbery of social class in the text but these characters never really feel as though their life is on the line, even the Mossop’s derided cellar looks like a cosy Hackney basement with trendy exposed brickwork. A few of the characters wear frayed clothes but it lacks the grime and the sheer bone-grinding poverty that is referenced in the programme notes, where people worked long hours for little pay and no protection, so when Maggie decides to attach herself to a man she will make upwardly mobile, it would be useful to see the huge risk she is taking to marry beneath her.
This production champions the brilliance of Maggie as a woman out of her time – the play was written in 1915 but set in the 1880s – as well as the power and entrepreneurial spirit of women in general. Yet Naomi Frederick, along with her stage husband, Willie, played by Bryan Dick, has considerably more stage time than anyone else in the production, yet star billing and the prime spots in the programme are given to senior co-stars Shaw and Timothy, while Frederick and Dick are given smaller bios in the alphabetical cast list (albeit at the top). For a show promoting women, it seems odd to relegate its lead actress.
Frederick is really the heart of the piece as the no-nonsense Maggie who keeps everyone straight, while Bryan Dick gets most of the laughs as the shell-shocked Mossop who cannot begin to live up to his clever wife. Shaw’s Hobson is essentially a caricature of an apoplectic and self-pitying drunk, which he shamelessly hams-up, while Timothy has about five minutes on stage – both are considerably better than these performances. The rests of the cast is fine but their characters are rather two-dimensional and it’s hard to feel sorry or pleased for anyone.
Hobson’s Choice is then a perfectly decent production of a perfectly decent play, with some good performances and a number of comedy moments that amuse. It has an old-fashioned no-frills approach which will almost certainly appeal to audiences, yet you never feel you really get under the skin of these people or the way they live. This production is like a comfy old pair of shoes that will have you dreaming of Kinky Boots.
Runs until: 10 September 2016 | Image:Nobby Clark