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.