Hobson’s Choice was written in 1915 and set in the 1880s but, dolled up in a miniskirt and dancing along to a Swinging Sixties soundtrack, Harold Brighouse’s comedy is dragged forward half a century by director Nadia Fall for a run at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre.
The transition works surprisingly well. The 1960s were prosperous years for Salford – the city where the play is set – making it the perfect background for Hobson’s Boot Makers. There are a few moments where the time travel feels clunky but for the most part Fall’s update feels like a real breath of fresh air for the play. It works particularly well for the play’s main character, Maggie Hobson, who is played with steely determination and an admirable feistiness by the wonderful Jodie McNee. In 1880 such a brilliant, powerful woman would have been an anomaly. In 1960 she is symbolic of her generation, one that seized their own power and their own sexuality, adding an interesting new angle to this old play.
Henry Horatio Hobson (Mark Benton) is the patriarch and shop owner, a proud middle class man with three daughters Maggie (McNee), Alice (Nadia Clifford) and Vickey (Hannah Britland) – a drunken King Lear selling shoe laces, if you will. Once he utters the brilliant line “Get one marriage in the family it goes through the lot like measles” it’s immediately clear where this is going. Maggie is the brains behind Hobson’s operation and, after hatching a plan and catching herself a husband in the form of hapless soul and talented shoemaker Willie Mossop (Karl Davies), sets up a boot maker’s shop of her own. She then embarks upon another, more altruistic plot: helping her sisters escape the control of their lovable but tyrannical father through marriage to their sweethearts and teaching Henry Hobson an important lesson in the process.
The cast is outstanding. While McNee is the undoubtable star – and earns the loudest applause – Karl Davies is also strong as poor Mossop. Watching his transformation is touching and very funny. Ben Stones’ crumbling set and neat ’60s costume, combined with the glorious ampitheatre setting of Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre make the production a great one to look at. But while the success of this adaptation is largely down to Fall’s update, her masterful handling of Brighouse’s text allows the plot’s subtleties to shine through.
As much about class as it is about gender, there’s a pleasing little message about the importance of education for progression hidden in Hobson’s Choice. There’s also a great Taming of the Shrew-esque ending that leaves you wandering home through the park feeling uplifted. This isn’t the perfect comedy but it is pretty close.