Harold Brighouse’s best known play has been adapted many times since its inception – as a Broadway musical, a ballet, a silent film, a TV adaptation and even a interpretation set in the modern day Asian community. However, Christopher Luscombe’s version for the Crucible errs on the side of tradition, the production set firmly in 1880s Salford.
Harold Hobson, a bluff Northerner, owns a cobblers in Salford which is run by his three daughters. The eldest daughter, Maggie, is the secret behind the shop’s success and when she practically orders the shop’s star shoemaker to marry her in order to go into business herself, it splits the family asunder and sends Hobson spiralling into bankruptcy, alcoholism and depression.
It’s easy to see why Hobson’s Choice remains so enduring. It has some nicely drawn characters, contains a dusting of Cinderella, as well as some solid Northern humour – indeed, with its preponderance of strong, dominant women and timid, subservient men, it’s possible to draw a line from Brighouse to many of the characters of Coronation Street.
Admittedly, some of this feels a bit old-fashioned at times, but Luscombe is well served by his cast. Barrie Rutter dominates as Hobson, playhim as a comical, slightly buffoonish figure; though he does fall into caricature at times, he benefits from having the majority of the most amusing lines, and even earns a round of applause following his exit at the end of Act Three.
Zoe Waites, as Maggie, is hard as nails and frighteningly efficient on the surface, but conveys a strong sense of loneliness and insecurity bubbling away underneath. Similarly, Philip McGinley is excellent as Maggie’s husband Will, convincingly jittery and insecure at the start, before Maggie moulds him into a successful businessman during the second half of the play.
It’s in that second half that revival really comes into its own, revealing an unexpected emotional core beyond the bluff humour. The third act finishes wordlessly, and in a very touching manner, with Will tense and terrified to consummate his marriage. Suddenly, Maggie appears, hair flowing over her shoulders and carrying a oil-lantern, and gently takes him by the hand and leads him into the bedoom. It’s a beautifully poignant moment, allowing both character’s vulnerability to shine through, and perfectly played by both Waites and McGinley.
Janet Bird’s set designs enhance the whole experience, perfectly recreating Hobson’s shop, complete with staircase and cellar door, in the first half, and then swiftly constructing the newly married Maggie and Will’s front room for the second half.
If you were churlish, you could pick holes in Brighouse’s play: Hobson’s misogyny and bullying tendencies are played down, and there’s not much here that would provoke or challenge an audience. Yet it’s staged with wit and warmth and the results are highly enjoyable and entertaining.