Hobson’s Choice – Review

Hobson's Choice. Images Nobby Clark
Hobson’s Choice. Images Nobby Clark

Northern women are frequently depicted on stage and screen as flinty, forthright, headstrong and dominant, leading matriarchal families and making all the big decisions in life while their timid men hand over their pay packets, do as they’re told and buckle down.

At least that’s how it used to be (though Coronation Street still seems ruled by its women) to us more liberal-minded, egalitarian southerners.

Harold Brighouse’s delightful multi-layered, “uproarious” stage comedy, Hobson’s Choice, doesn’t put a foot wrong. It is as much a social commentary about the plight of women and the working class as it is about a struggling Lear-like father figure trying to keep a tight rein on his three daughters.

In Maggie Hobson, the 30-year-old ambitious oldest daughter, Brighouse created one of theatre’s greatest female protagonists. It’s Naomi Frederick’s blistering performance as Maggie which everyone is talking about and not Martin Shaw, as alcoholic shopkeeper, Hobson, in this Theatre Royal Bath revival, directed by Jonathan Church, which opened last night at Milton Keynes Theatre.

The flame-haired Frederick dominates the play with a commanding performance as the woman wielding the broom that brings about a sweeping change to a country’s historic values and traditions.

hobson's choice

Maggie is a determined woman, and probably a chip off the old block. Her father scoffs at the idea of her marrying. “You’re a proper old maid, Maggie” he laughs. “I’m 30!” she says incredulously.

Harold Hobson runs a successful bootmakers in 1880s Salford. The portly widower leaves the running of his shop to his three daughters, who work unpaid because they’re family, while he spends most of his days drinking the profits with his chums in his local pub, only rolling home for lunch and dinner, cooked by his daughters. It’s a perfect working arrangement – for him.

But the girls are now young women and all three want to marry. However, the process would incur massive costs for their father and leave him without any staff. Needless to say he’s not enamoured with the idea.

He tries to exert his authority but we can all see where it’s going. When has any father ever been able to control his daughters once puberty kicks in?

Maggie hatches her own plan for independence, telling Hobson’s most talented bootmaker, Willie Mossop, that he’s going to marry her. The poor lad is terrified of the intimidating woman but, after several tongue-lashings, capitulates.

This is the start of a revolution that sees a breakthrough in class mobility, engineered by the a very modern woman with enterprise and drive. She single-handedly, by dint of hard work and sacrifice, carves out a new future that includes better education, opportunities and conditions for women and the working classes.

You have to do a double-take to recognise Martin Shaw as the elderly Hobson. Stout, mutton-chopped and sporting the strawberry-tinted nose of a man who has imbibed to excess, it’s a part devoid of all vanity.

Christopher Timothy in Hobson's Choice

Despite being – and I had to look it up twice to believe it – 71-years-old – the star still manages to pull the ladies, both on stage and screen, and in the audience.

It’s refreshing to see him put aside such foolishness to inhabit the mantle of a gone-to-seed, short-tempered, bad mannered, vain and selfish boor and pull it off so convincingly. I don’t know why I’m surprised. He is a superb stage actor (though the Mancunian accent was occasionally so strong that I almost needed an interpreter).

Bryan Dick’s splendidly nervous Willie Mossop is a joy to watch. The lad (at 38 his boyish looks still see him cast as a youngster) is quaking in his boots as the domineering Maggie takes him in hand, educates him and puts him on the road to success.

One of the funniest scenes is watching the petrified Willie face up to the inevitable on his wedding night. The condemned man entreats others to stay with him, and is prepared to bed down on an old couch, rather than spend the night with a woman he neither loves or even knows that well – but Maggie has other ideas.

Christopher Timothy is woefully underused, appearing in a cameo as Hobson’s drinking buddy, Jim Heeler. It’s such a waste of a great character actor. Mention also of Ken Drury’s excellent, though very brief, appearance as Dr McFarlane, whose no-nonsense bluff Scots doctor tells Hobson that he must quit the booze or die.

Simon Higlett’s evocative set, always a delight to see, is cleverly built to include a revolve that not only gives us a fantastically designed shop interior but also its shabby living quarters and those of Maggie and Willie, who set up home in a grimy cellar.

Hobson’s Choice runs at Milton Keynes Theatre until Saturday before playing Cambridge Arts Theatre (March 14-19), Nottingham Theatre Royal (March 21-26), Richmond Theatre (March 28-April 2) and Theatre Royal Norwich (April 11-16) and, hopefully, a stint in London’s West End, although no venue has yet been announced.