tue 18/02/2020

Hobson's Choice, Open Air Theatre, Regent's Park | reviews, news & interviews

Hobson's Choice, Open Air Theatre, Regent's Park

Hobson's Choice, Open Air Theatre, Regent's Park

From 1880s to 1960s: Northern feminist comedy gets a mini-skirt makeover

Under the boot: sisters Maggie (Jodie McNee), Vickey (Hannah Britland) and Alice (Nadia Clifford) Hobson contemplate the future in their father's shop.Johan Persson

Director Nadia Fall has taken that patriarchal purveyor of footwear Henry Horatio Hobson and his family out of their natural habitat - a traditional proscenium arch theatre - and into a different time, the 1960s. Does this staple of British drama, written by Harold Brighouse in 1915 but set in 1880, benefit from relocation from plush indoor environs to the open air and from the era of button boots to sling-back stilettos? Up to a point.

Designer Ben Stones' delightfully exploded Salford shoe shop sits comfortably under the swaying boughs of Regent's Park; the fresh air does not diminish the sense of claustrophobic restraint in the household as Hobson exploits the three daughters who work for him unpaid. Nevertheless, even acknowledging that the Sixties did not swing as fast or as universally as is often supposed, it is difficult to believe that Maggie, Alice and Vickey would accept their predicament without serious complaint for so long. There are other niggles too: Hobson mutters about doctor's bills a good 15 years after the introduction of the NHS and his friend Jim refers to his wife leathering their daughters into submission. In the era of Adam Faith and the Beatles?

On the plus side, the music of the period is a bonus: "That's Life" and "How Do You Do It?" recur, setting the tone in the first minutes as the cast dance in formation before entering in character. Mark Benton as Hobson (pictured right) changes in an instant into an alcoholic blusterer although, more comically soused balloon than martinet, he is never much of a match for Jodie McNee's splendid Maggie. If the updating tends sometimes to make her seem strident rather than daringly revolutionary, the original story - a sort of revenge comedy - comes over clearly enough and she is never less than spiritedly engaging.

Clear-headed Maggie brooks no argument from the company's best boot maker, Willie Mossop, when she announces that they are to marry and set up a business together. Written off as unmarriageable by her father, who depends on her utterly, she returns with her husband within a year to take over Hobson's shop, now a failing business with a sick owner: all those years of overindulgence have taken their toll. Maggie has educated Willie and, by now in love, is sensible enough to encourage his belief in himself by demanding respect from her snobbish sisters and even to defer to him sometimes herself. An unlikely love story between two undervalued people is at the heart of Hobson's Choice. Yes, the play questions - or at least burlesques - assumptions about gender and class, but the theme which keeps it up-to-date is simply that of people needing to learn their own worth.

Fall comes fresh from success directing gritty, urgent new plays such as Home at the National and Disgraced at the Bush. Here her sprightly production makes the most of the piece's comic potential. McNee and Benton are well supported by Karl Davies, first wispy and then smart as Willie; by Hannah Britland and Nadia Clifford as Maggie's callow sisters, and by Robin Bowerman as Dr MacFarlane, who displays bossy common sense in much the same vein as Maggie herself.

An unlikely love story between two undervalued people is at the heart of the play


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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