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Review of Hobson’s Choice at Regent’s Park Theatre

Hobson's Choice at Regent's Park Open AirBy relocating this classic Harold Brighouse  play in the 1960s, Regent’s Park Theatre is actually being more consistent with the author’s approach than might first appear. Though he wrote it in 1915, he placed it in the Salford of the 1880s, setting up a comparable gap of decades between the story and its telling. Fortunately for him, his drama and us, the narrative springs are the timeless English ones of class-hatred and gender warfare.

No matter if the near-tragedy of the awful Henry Hobson is played out against the background sounds of Swinging Teens or groaning serfs of the Victorian north, the morals of the case are not negotiable: a tyrannical father is a tyrannical father wherever you set him down; likewise a skinflint boss. The passage of a century may scramble the details, but they don’t touch the heart of the matter. Less still the heart of Mr. Hobson.

He, you may remember, is the widowed head of a small family bootmaking business. He has three daughters in various stages of dependence upon and rebellion against him. He owes his so-important status in the community to the underpaid craftsmen toiling in his basement. He was horribly well served by Charles Lawton in David Lean’s 1950s movie.

The choice for Regent’s Park is, initially, hilarious. Through no fault of his own, Mark Benton is best known as the comically grim assistant in a TV ad for a High Street bank. Once you accept that you’ve got him for the next two and a half hours, the facial slapstick palls and we’re stuck with the creature which Brighouse surely intended – the gross embodiment of small-trade snobbery in the middle of a wider system of entrenched social patronage.

Industry may have shaken up the old order, but it has quickened the appetite for tokens of standing. If Hobson’s best employee, young Willie Mossop had intended to ridicule his boss, he couldn’t have done so more transgressively than by asking for his daughter’s hand in marriage. But the reality is worse; it’s the daughter who fishes Willie out of the cellar as raw material from which to fashion a husband.

The literary echoes are clear if not always intended. With the benefit not just of hindsight but also a succession of Married Woman’s Property Acts, the situation of Hobson’s girls might not have been quite as dependent as that of  Jane Austen’s heroines; but goodness it was still rash to set love over lolly when it came to planning marital partnerships.

King Lear is knocking about here too, as Brighouse surely meant us to conclude, thanks to the three daughters, two of them marrying with his consent, the third over his (already nearly) dead body. This one, Maggie, the eldest, is the worm that turns, from being the designated spinster (and carer) into the firebrand leader storming the citadel of male prerogative. At the clever, radical core of the character is the knowledge that in breaking a bondage based on gender, she can help Willie do the same to a servitude based on class. What the RP production brings out with high clarity is Brighouse’s portrayal of a class struggle so mighty and needed that feminism – or what we would much later call by that name – was an inevitable part of a still greater cause.

On the credibility of this pair’s relationship hangs much of the play’s power; like other serious business in the story, this starts light; it is a kind of cartoon wooing, Beatrice without her Benedick, and then it builds into a force that can move not only mountains but the larger bulk of Hobson himself. As Maggie and Willie, Jodie McNee and Karl Davies are forces of nature and evolution respectively, she insisting on change as if this is the natural condition, he realising that if he does not adapt, then his own future will become a thing of the past. Even Hobson proves that he is not beyond learning. He will never thank Benton for finding such vulnerability in him – far too proud – but he could not have made the transition alone.

Winning performances too from Hannah Britland and Nadia Clifford as Maggie’s sisters; and a strong cameo from Robin Bowerman as Dr. MacFarlane although he certainly has some creaky ideas (which surely Brighouse didn’t share) on how to deal with drunks.

What is Hobson’s choice? I asked people at the show and most of those who didn’t shrug replied that the phrase came from the play. But no; the Hobson in question was a seventeenth century Cambridge stable owner who rested his horses in careful rotation so that the best ones didn’t get asked for over again and worn out as a result. The client could have the mount waiting at the stable door. That one or nothing. So, an early version of my-way-or-the-highway, which is just what Brighouse’s anti-hero was offering.

Not the most natural of choices for the Open Air Theatre, if only because the dour terraces of Salford are such worlds away from the park’s extravagant foliage. But we’re in them all right, thanks to Ben Stones’ tough rotating set, the more so as the plot darkens and the night with it.

Review by Alan Franks


Hobson’s Choice
Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre
12th June to 12th July
Evenings: Monday to Saturday 7.45pm
Matinees: Thursday and Saturday 2.15pm

Friday 13th July 2014



  • Alan Franks

    Alan Franks is one of the senior reviewers for LondonTheatre1.com, contributing regularly with reviews for London and regional shows, as well as reporting on press launches. Alan Franks was a Times feature writer for more than thirty years, specialising in the arts and interviewing many leading actors, writers and directors, including Arthur Miller, Peter Hall, Woody Allen, Judi Dench and Stephen Sondheim. He is the author of several plays, including The Mother Tongue starring Prunella Scales, and his latest novel, The Notes of Dr. Newgate, is published by Muswell Press. http://www.alanfranks.com

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