Wednesday, 15 June 2016

Review Hobson's Choice

Hobson's Choice
By Harold Brighouse

Free Willie

It's off to Salford via the Vaudeville Theatre on London's Strand for the Theatre Royal Bath's production of Harold Brighouse's Hobson's Choice, first produced in 1915 in New York. 

Yes, this product of the Manchester School of playwrights seems to be a global play at home around the world with its pompous merchants and rags-to-riches tale. Indeed in 1965 Sir Laurence Olivier took an Old Vic National Theatre production of Hobson's Choice to Moscow.

In 1880s' Lancashire, family patriach, master shoe and bootmaker and heavy-drinking freemason Henry Horatio Hobson (Martin Shaw) keeps his three dependent daughters, Maggie (Naomi Frederick), Alice (Florence Hall) and Vickey (Gabrielle Dempsey), as, well now we would say, unpaid interns in his successful shoemaking and retail concern.

And open the flap down to the basement, you'll find, like some Morlock of HG Wells, the timid, illiterate, low paid but talented craftsman Willie Mossop (Bryan Dick) originally an Oliver Twist-like "workhouse brat" apprenticed to Hobson.

Maggie, bookkeeper and saleswoman (unpaid), having reached the ripe old age of 30 (!!!) is "on the shelf", or so widower Hobson insists, knowing she is the brains behind his business. 

Meanwhile Hobson's refusal to provide dowries for Alice and Vickey stops them from marrying their beaux, solicitor Albert Prosser (Joe Bannister) and corn merchant's son Freddie Beenstock (Ryan Saunders) respectively.  

Whether by chance or otherwise, a wealthy female customer Mrs Hepworth (Joanna McCallum), similarly encumbered with daughters, sets off a chain of events where Maggie seizes her chance, takes Willie in hand and engineers a transfer of power which also allows her sisters to marry.

At the same time, Hobson's former status as head of his own shoe empire does not prevent the possibility of him sharing the fate of the destitute widow in Brighouse's earlier short play Lonesome Like   

As we noted in Horniman's Choice, it's a mistake to underestimate the sly sophisticated playwriterly skill, disguised under a stage Lanacastrian accent, of Brighouse, a Guardian newspaper reviewer and textile trader,

By coincidence, in fact, TLT and her jalopy settled down with the popcorn recently and watched Joy, a rags-to-riches merchandising tale which, amongst other similarities, even has a widow - Isabelle Rossellini - putting up the capital for a product and a father - Robert De Niro - whose factory benefits from his daughter's - played by Jennifer Lawrence - bookkeeping.

Instead of elements of music hall, it takes on the tropes of TV soaps alongside a change in the balance of power in a household and the themes of wage slaves,  legal chicanery and its own Hobson's Choice.

So this is an enduring comedy as much a Chekhovian and Pygmalion tale as King Lear with a salty Salford twist wherre everyone knows each other's business on Chapel Street. Hobson tries to hang on to his business alone beyond his term, without taking on the requisite son-in-law to take over his business and by doing so unwittingly gives more power to his daughters.

Yet this particular production of Hobson's Choice, directed by Jonathan Church,  overall needs a harder edge, although the central trio of Martin Shaw's Hobson with his Biblical rhythms of speech, Naomi Frederick's Maggie and even Bryan Dick's Mossop all acquit themselves with a steely core when called for with the necessary, almost Darwinian, ruthlessness.

No wonder, John Braine, we realised, took the title of his 1957 novel about a  go-getter climbing the greasy corporate pole from a line in this play.

Produced for the first time on Broadway two years before the USA entered the First World War, at the heart of the play remains a Dickensian mystery - who exactly is Willie Mossop to have been given these chances? 

In spite of his lowly status, he is also the object of attention from his landlady and her daughter (a finely judged cameo by Emily Johnstone) until he is grabbed by the ear, literally and metaphorically, by Maggie.

This production has its highlights, not least a detailed set by Simon Higlett which uses the revolve to magnificent effect to enhance the psychic space of the play in the second act. 

Nevertheless, there are times when it does drag between the moments of reversal, as if by wanting to reach the dots, some of the lines in between are neglected. Still, it's a legitimate interpretation and a solid production of a classic play and so a TLT amber light.    

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