Sometimes, it has to be said, the theatre takes itself a little too seriously. It is felt that plays must have meanings and all characters multi-faceted with layers of depth and emotion behind their every action. On the whole I agree with this and often want to to know more about the motivation behind a character’s actions and what will happen to them once the curtain comes down. But occasionally, I find myself just wanting to go to the theatre to be entertained for a couple of hours. To see a good production that is beautifully staged and will leave me feeling happy as I walk out. Well, luckily for me, and the theatre going public, there is just such a production in the West End at the moment, with the opening of Hobson’s Choice at the Vaudeville Theatre.
If you are a resident of Salford in 1880, then there is only one place to go for new shoes and boots and that is the establishment of Henry Horatio Hobson (Martin Shaw), a man who fawns sycophantically to his clientele, such as the wealthy Mrs Hepworth (Joanna McCallum). However, away from the customers, Hobson is an overbearing tyrannical, misogynistic, miser and bully who despises those that work for him and is perpetually shouting at his three daughters (who manage his home and his shop). Of the three daughters, Maggie (Naomi Frederick) pretty much rules the roost, controlling every aspect of the shop and making sure the household – and her father – runs smoothly, despite Hobson’s constant delusion that he is in control. Hobson knows he can rely on Maggie to always be there for him as she is in his own words “an old maid”. His other two daughters, Alice (Florence Hall) and Victoria (Gabrielle Dempsey) are younger and far more eligible. Indeed, they have suitors already in the shape of local lawyer Albert Prosser (Joe Bannister) and wholesale merchant Freddie Beanstock (Ryan Saunders). Hobson is happy with the idea of getting the two girls off his hands until his mate Jim (Christopher Timothy) explains that he will have to make a settlement on the girls in order for them to marry. Hobson changes his mind about marriage and decides that his three girls will continue to work for him until their dying day. Eldest daughter Maggie has other plans however, and has, to use an old northern expression, set her cap at talented but uneducated, and painfully aware of his place in the world, bootmaker Willie Mossop (Bryan Dick). As Maggie puts her plans into action, not only her life will be changed but so will the lives of every member of her family, with Hobson learning that life can sometimes be worse than the worst nightmare when taking on the whirlwind of a powerful Northern lass on a mission.
Hobson’s Choice was first performed in 1916 and for a show that’s hitting its centenary this year it’s not looking too bad. Director Jonathan Church has revived the old classic superbly with a wonderfully authentic and impressive set designed by Simon Higlett, who also designed the period costumes. The thing I really liked about the production is that nobody has tried to mess around with it. With the exception of the lights and revolving stage, this is a show that has stayed firmly routed to the original text and there have been no attempts to try and analyse anyone or see characters other than the way they are portrayed. Martin Shaw’s Hobson is exactly as you would imagine a drunken middle class, full of his own importance, man of the late 1800’s. As well as his drunken antics and abuse of his daughters, there is a wonderful moment in Act II where Hobson is leaving Maggie and Willie’s home and as he goes, he warns Albert and Freddie of the perils of marriage. Martin Shaw delivers this perfectly, gaining respectful laughs for his, frankly horrendous, comments and a well earned round of applause as he slams the door on his exit. whilst Bryan Dick’s Willie is initially the complete opposite of Hobson, by the end you can see how Maggie has worked with her husband and released the inner man that she spotted in the forelock touching scared jackrabbit that worked in the cellar for her father. The interesting thing about Hobson’s Choice is that whilst the story is ostensibly about Henry – and in this case they have brought in a talented star name to play him – the real star, both of the story and the show, is Maggie. She is, let’s be frank, a no-nonsense ,bossy pragmatist that it would be so easy to overplay causing the audience to hate her. But Naomi Frederick plays Maggie with a rod of steel and determination that means, even when she is being at her most domineering, you still root for her. A wonderfully timed and nuanced performance from Naomi. The rest of the characters, such as the woefully underused Christopher Timothy’s Jim, are pretty two dimensional, in the way they are written but all the actors all give it their all with the three principles rightly taking the bulk of the audience attention. My one, very minor criticism, having lived in Lancashire a good many years, I did notice that some of the accents did seem to wander about a couple of times and may have temporarily settled somewhere a little bit south of Salford.
So, if you want a good old fashioned night out at the theatre where you can sit back, relax and enjoy well put together production of a classic old play then my advice would be to get yourself to the Vaudeville and spend two hours with Hobson and his family. If you aren’t smiling and feeling chilled out as you leave this very decent production of Hobson’s Choice then there is no hope for you.
Review by Terry Eastham
Harold Brighouse’s classic comic love story is the tale of a Salford cobbler with three unruly daughters that owes more than a little to King Lear and Cinderella. The homage is purely intentional.
Martin Shaw is one of the UK’s favourite actors, well-known for starring in Inspector George Gently, Judge John Deed, and The Professionals on television. His stage roles include Saturday, Sunday, Monday opposite Laurence Olivier; he was Tony Award nominated for An Ideal Husband on Broadway and won a Drama Desk award. Recent West End credits include A Man for All Seasons and Twelve Angry Men.
Christopher Timothy is best-known for his roles as James Herriot in All Creatures Great and Small and Mac in the BBC series Doctors.
Artistic director of the Chichester Festival Theatre since 2006, where his acclaimed productions have included Taken at Midnight, The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui and Singin’ in the Rain, Jonathan Church has recently been appointed Artistic Director of Sydney Theatre Company.
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