There’s something about formidable women named Maggie. There’s Maggie the Cat, the ill-fated Maggie Tulliver, and the rather more real and thoroughly divisive Maggie Thatcher. And then there’s Harold Brighouse’s heroine Maggie Hobson, a force of nature who embodies somewhat ambivalent proto-feminist ideals. A ‘Hobson’s choice’ is a choice with no alternative and when this Maggie makes a proposition, ‘no’ is never an option.
The Open Air Theatre might not be the obvious venue for a play rooted in an urban setting but it can literally breathe fresh air into any old warhorse without losing the sense of the characters’ claustrophobic existences (evoked by Ben Stones’s jagged shoe shop set). Nadia Fall’s zippy and thoroughly engaging production transposes the action from 1880s to the 1960s, the generation gap and the novelty of youth culture signified by the transition between Frank Sinatra and rock and roll. The New Woman is replaced by dolly birds and miniskirts, rather than bustles, are the racy garment of choice. Contrary to popular belief, the Sixties didn’t swing for everyone, least of all the Hobson girls, living as unpaid workers in their drunken father’s shoemaking business.
Superbly anchored by Jodie McNee’s magnificently shrewd Maggie, deemed too brusque and too old (at 30) to be marriage material, this is the story of an exceptionally strong-willed woman’s attempt to make a life for herself. In her way, she’s just as much of a dictator as her dad, but her demands are delivered with such persuasiveness that it would seem unreasonable not to go along with them. Her escape route is by forcing marriage on the timid and sexually ambivalent Willie Mossop (Karl Davies), her father’s most skilled bootmaker, sensing that with his talent and her business acumen, they could form Salford’s ultimate power couple. Her smart royal blue wedding outfit accessorised with a prominent handbag calls to mind Mrs Thatcher and her devoted Denis, the battleaxe and her effete consort.
Maggie’s mission to whip Willie into shape by educating him in literacy and numeracy leads to a sentimental education for both. Terrified of being left alone with his bride on their wedding night, the love that gradually blossoms between this inexperienced couple is sensitively evoked by a creative use of music. When Willie stands up to his father-in-law, still quivering under his newly developed self confidence, Maggie’s pride in being able to defer to her husband is somewhat disappointing, suggesting a reinforcement of traditional values rather than a partnership of equals.
Often dubbed the ‘Salford King Lear’, Mark Benton cuts a corpulently pathetic Henry Horatio Hobson, clinging on to his image as a pillar of the community as he stumbles through his self-inflicted downfall. The sisters aren’t on the same level as Goneril and Regan but are imbued with recognisable snottiness by Hannah Britland and Nadia Clifford, and Joanna David makes a gracious cameo as a satisfied customer.
Brighouse’s most enduring play is a sturdy enough thing to withstand a change of era and would be lucky to be better served by its cast. A fresh rendition of a well-made play on a balmy summer evening is a fine thing indeed and further reinforces Fall’s stock as a director to watch.