There’s a type of woman that they only seem to breed “Up North”.
They are inevitably nowt to look at, spinsters or widow-women, and they’re blunt-spoken, honest, nay lad, bloody rude when they want to be, and the salt of the earth. There’s “no-side” to her.
Such a woman is Maggie Hobson, the unsung heroine of Harold Brighouse’s comedy, Hobson’s Choice.
By heck the woman is absolutely terrifying. Men quiver in her presence and cower at the verbal tongue-lashing they know that they are about to get.
But she’s a woman ahead of her time – A force to be reckoned with and symbolic of a region’s grit, determination, and ambition.
Hobson’s Choice, wonderfully updated to the Coronation Streets of Salford in the 1960s, is the latest production to appear at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre and it is an absolute treat.
Brighouse originally set the story in the 1880s but director Nadia Fall has lost none of the story’s messages about class and society by pitching it 80 years on. It’s soon obvious that little has changed during the interim.
Messer Henry Hobson, widower and toper of the parish, has a high class shoe shop run, on a daily basis by his three daughters (for no-pay) which allows him to conduct lengthy “business meetings” among his drinking cronies at the local.
One hangover too many and he threatens the women in a bid to keep them firmly in their place.
“There’s a gradual increase in uppishness. You’ll not rule me!” He declares.
His solution is to marry off his youngest two. The eldest, Maggie, is 30, and on the shelf. (“An old maid,” he scoffs). Anyway he needs her expertise in running the business.
Any thoughts of the girls marrying the men they fancy is thrown right out of the window.
But Henry soon baulks at the idea of marriage when he hears he’ll have to stump up a settlement for each.
However there is more than one way to skin a cat and the wily Maggie, angry and frustrated at being worked as a slave by her father, sets to with a plan.
In a brazen bit of business she proposes to her father’s best shoemaker, a terrified, illiterate, Willie Mossop and sets wheels in motion to bring her father to his senses.
Mark Benton’s Hobson is a sight to see – both dressed and in his gaiters.
The drunken shopkeeper staggers onto the stage singing Sinatra’s That’s Life but looking more like Vito Corleone.
After all he’s a big man in trade and he expects total respect and obedience – but he hasn’t reckoned on being outgunned by Maggie.
At times Hobson is a drunken fool and then a volatile brute, taking his belt to the frightened Mossop. But he’s like Lear, out-manoeuvred and outplayed by three daughters.
“To my daughters I am a windbag!” he wails. “They answer back!”
Benton gives a commanding performance but this is Jodie McNee’s play.
As the feisty and fearless Maggie she is unstoppable, arming the ignorant Mossop with the tools needed to elevate his social status and instil in him the confidence to succeed.
Her initially awkward overtures to Willie as she sets out her plans for their future (until then he wasn’t aware that they had a future together) are delicately played with Maggie stumbling to find the words that normally come from the man in courtship.
Karl Davies’ transformation from the uneducated underling, Mossop, to a self-made businessman, is a delight to watch. He physically seems to grow in stature under Maggie’s expert tuition.
The two other girls – Vickey (Hannah Britland) and Alice (Nadia Clifford) – are described as window dressing by their domineering father but they too mature under their older sister’s influence.
I fear what a rainy night will do to Ben Stones’ excellent set. They’ll never sell a pair of bespoke shoes if they get water damage.
This tremendous production of Hobson’s Choice runs at Regent’s Park until July 12.