It may have become a fixture in our theatrical repertoire, but Hobson’s Choice can still spring surprises. This it does from the very start of Matthew Townshend’s ebullient production, when we seem to be a long way from the Salford of 1880, the location in which it was placed by its author Harold Brighouse. This looks and sounds remarkably like the 1950s, complete with early jive dancing to the first raw twangs of rock ‘n’ roll. You can even spot a Dansette record player.
Has this masterpiece from so-called Manchester School of the early twentieth century been transposed to postwar Britain? Yes and no. The dancers evaporate and turn into old Henry Hobson’s daughters and their suitors. They open their mouths and we seem to be reassuringly back in Brighouse’s intended setting of Hobson’s the bootmakers, a microcosm of old chauvinism, patriarchy and social aspiration.
But the point is made. In its acquired timelessness, the play may well come across like a latterday King Lear, complete with a tyrannical father – widowed, ranting, failing – and three conflictual daughters, but it is also intimately concerned with the passing of larger orders, social and political. This is a war between entrenchment and mobility, authority and rebellion, much as Fifties England was, no matter how upstaged it became by the peacock decade that succeeded it.
The play’s own biography was unusual; written by an Englishman, it only arrived in its country of origin after being premiered in New York. The reason for this was the emerging Broadway career of his friend and fellow countryman Ben Iden Payne. When it reached London’s West End, the year was 1916, when the stakes of conflict were higher still.
In casting the splendid John D Collins in the title role, Townshend has taken the gravity of Brighouse’s portrait full-on, and the result is an anti-hero glorious in his monstrosity and with a bold absence of redeeming features beyond the entertainment value of his breathtaking awfulness. While the family-business setting of the play gives it a certain sitcom levity – anxious boyfriend, controlling sister, slapstick drunkenness – the issues on which its plot rests are nothing less than liberty and human rights. Surely Brighouse would have relished the irony of his having come up with something so – no other word for it – feminist.
The Hobson daughters Alice, Vickey and Maggie are served more than dutifully by Greta Harwood, Kelly Aaron and Rhiannon Sommers respectively, with the last of these moving deftly on the torn terrain of filial duty and proper self-fulfilment. As her selected husband and Hobson employee William Mossop, Michael Brown gives a complementary performance of servility finally ousted by the discovery of ambition. These are deceptively demanding roles, written with a mix of dourness and hilarity which almost pushes them into the domain of dark cartooning.
If, like Hobson himself, the play is showing its age, it is in such scenes as Nurse Macfarlane’s confrontation with the old man over his alcohol consumption. However, Natasha Cox gives an entertaining cameo as the nurse who comes to read him the riot act. The absence of any such complaints – there being none in the script – and the resulting appearance of tolerance and restraint by the old curmudgeon has a certain comedy of its own.
As to what Brighouse would say to Townshend (who also plays the roles of Jim Heeler and Tubby Wadlow), it might be something along the lines of “I’ve more plays if you’re interested.”
Review by Alan Franks
Matthew Townshend Productions presents a sparkling revival of one of the great classics of British Theatre, Harold Brighouse’s immortal Lancashire comedy Hobson’s Choice.
This fresh new production relocates from nineteenth-century Salford to the year 1958. Rock and roll may have arrived, the youth revolution may be just around the corner, but in Henry Horatio Hobson’s shoe shop Queen Victoria might still be on the throne.
Their wireless and a secret treasured record player keep the three girls tuned to the hit parade, but when eldest daughter Maggie has had enough and breaks free, taking Willie Mossop the bootmaker with her, the younger sisters Vickey and Alice feel free to make their own escape from home and from ‘trade.’
John D Collins, best known for TV’s ‘Allo! ‘Allo! plays Hobson. New songs by upcoming musicians Ben Goble with the Lockerbillies (Glastonbury 2017) echo the sounds of the time, from skiffle to Presley and from Doris Day to Jerry Lee Lewis.
Hobson’s Choice Listings Information
Brockley Jack Studio Theatre, 410 Brockley Road, London, SE4 2DH
Tuesday 4th to Saturday 15th September 2018 at 7.30pm.