Reviews London TheatreWest End & Central Published 17 June 2016

Review: Hobson’s Choice at the Vaudeville Theatre

Vaudeville Theatre ⋄ 8th June - 10th September 2016

“As comfortable as slipping into a well-worn pair of shoes”: Neil Dowden reviews Jonathan Church’s revival of Harold Brighouse’s comedy.

Neil Dowden
Hobson's Choice at the Vaudeville Theatre. Photo: Nobby Clark.

Hobson’s Choice at the Vaudeville Theatre. Photo: Nobby Clark.

King Lear – the comedy. Well, not quite, but Harold Brighouse’s evergreen Hobson’s Choice, first staged in Britain a hundred years ago, does occasionally seem like an alternative, jollier version of Shakespeare’s tragedy. It features an ageing, tyrannical widower with three ‘uppity’ daughters who learns the limitations of his powers the hard way – though this doesn’t involve madness or death, or even being caught out in a bad storm.

Set in 1880 in Salford, the play features Henry Horatio Hobson as the owner of a small but prosperous boot-making business, a self-made man with patriarchal, middle-class Victorian values. Bibulous and mean, he uses his daughters as unpaid skivvies in his shop. The two younger ones are mainly interested in wearing fashionable clothes and flirting with their sweethearts, but the eldest Maggie (classified as an ‘old maid’ at 30) manages the sales and accounts with real efficiency. She is as determined to get her own way, and outwits her father by marrying his junior bootmaker Willie Mossop, a superb but diffident craftsman, and proceeds to make a man of him as they set up their own rival business.

Part of the early twentieth-century Manchester School of playwrights influenced by the naturalist and social dramas of Ibsen and Shaw, Brighouse wrote about the industrial north with local knowledge. Hobson’s Choice touches on class snobbery and upward mobility, while his remarkably strong, independent-minded female protagonist probably reflects the suffragette period in which the play was written. But the conflicts are lightly sketched, with Maggie’s revolt portrayed as an admirably entrepreneurial move including her very funny ‘takeover’ of Willie – in some ways she is a chip off the old block.

Hobson’s Choice can be done in different ways – in recent years Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre set it at the start of the sixties sexual revolution, while the Young Vic production took place within a contemporary British-Asian family – but Jonathan Church (who has directed the play twice before) here goes for old-fashioned period charm, with intertitles displayed like a silent film. It’s a very traditional, safe production that feels as comfortable as slipping into a well-worn pair of shoes, which produces plenty of laughs without making any demands. Simon Higlett’s handsome, revolving design switches from quaint, wooden-shelved shop to brick cellar workroom and cosy living room.

Martin Shaw gives a broadly humorous portrayal of the florid, silver-whiskered and pot-bellied Hobson, strutting around with his hands in his waistcoat pockets and spreading his legs wide when sitting, turning from bullying bluster to self-pitying acceptance. With Naomi Frederick’s superbly judged, briskly comic performance this feels like Maggie’s show, conveying her steely pragmatism without becoming shrilly domineering, stubbornly single-minded but also generous to others. And Bryan Dick makes the most of Willie’s reluctant but resigned response to Maggie’s offer he can’t refuse, as with her help he develops from deferential workman to self-confident businessman.

She may have been wearing the trousers while he was making the boots, but in the end it seems to have evolved into a true partnership.

Hobson’s Choice is on until 10th September 2016. Click here for more information. 


Neil Dowden

Neil's day job is working as a freelance editor for book publishers such as HarperCollins, Penguin, Faber and British Film Institute Publishing, but as a night person he prefers reviewing for Exeunt. He has also written features on the theatre and reviewed films, concerts, albums, opera, dance, exhibitions, books and restaurants for various newspapers and magazines, including The Stage and What's On in London, as well as contributing to a couple of books on 20th-century drama and writing a short tourist guide to London for Visit Britain. He insists he is not a playwright manqué but was born to be a critic and just likes sticking a knife into luvvies. In fact, as a boy he wanted to become a professional footballer, but claims there were no talent scouts where he then lived on the South Wales coast, and so has had to settle for playing Sunday league for a dodgy south London team. Apart from the arts and sport, his other main interest is travel, and he is never happier than when up a mountain, though Everest Base Camp is the highest he has been so far. He believes he has not yet reached his peak.

Review: Hobson’s Choice at the Vaudeville Theatre Show Info

Produced by Theatre Royal Bath Productions, Jonathan Church Productions, Duncan C Weldon

Directed by Jonathan Church

Written by Harold Brighouse

Cast includes Martin Shaw, Naomi Frederick, Bryan Dick Gabrielle Dempsey, Joanna McCallum



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