You couldn’t ask for a better traditional staging of Hobson’s Choice than this production directed by Jonathan Church at the Chichester Festival Theatre. Harold Brighouse’s 1915 play is set in Salford in the 1880’s revolves around the haughty, snobbish and arrogant Henry Horatio Hobson, a widower, father to three grown up daughters and proprietor of a shoe shop in which they all work (him far less than anyone else). It is a brilliant play, not only a great comedy, but an interesting examination of women’s growing independence and the sometimes sour reality of family relationships and loyalties. It can be viewed as vaguely proto feminist, but also deeply cynical about human nature (and women), with the motivation of money and class being at the centre of all the events. These conflicts and mores were brilliantly shown in Tanika Gupta’s 2003 Young Vic version of the play, with the action transposed to a modern day Northern British Asian family, but the original 1880’s setting feels just as relevant (if different) at Chichester.
Hobson’s ‘past it’ eldest daughter (at the ripe old age of 30, imagine) Maggie decides that she won’t be left on the shelf forever, so plans to marry the shop’s illiterate but highly skilled boot maker, Willie Mossop (who is a rather reluctant groom), and set up their own business due to her father’s refusal to consent to her proposed marriage or a improved position for them both in his shop (she wants a modest wage after working for her father all her adult life). Hobson’s rails against his ‘uppish’ daughters, and when realising they might require some sort of dowry he decided to cancel his plan to marry off his two younger daughters, keeping them on as unpaid servants to him and his shop. Maggie and Willie do reasonably well in their modest basement premises, due to Willie’s excellent craftsmanship, his general reputation and Maggie’s steely drive. Maggie is a very stern and determined woman not prone to emotionalism, she clearly also has the best interests and happiness of her sisters in mind, as she devises a plan to get them married off to their respective and respectable sweethearts. After this plan comes to fruition Hobson is left alone in his house, with his shop in dire straits (due to Willie and Maggie’s success), his three daughters all established in their marital homes. Hobson becomes ill (victim of alcoholism and general bad health) and his stern Scottish doctor ‘prescribes’ one of his daughters to come and look after him. Naturally his now proud and vain younger daughters, married off to professional men (above Hobson’s mercantile middle class status), are not interested in returning to live above a shoe shop and Maggie is left to care for her father. She drives a hard bargain, forcing her father to give control of the shop up to Willie, but despite her harsh exterior she is the real heart of the family, almost the surrogate mother to them all (even of her husband, whom she ‘improves’). Maggie is a woman who would do anything to get what she wants; she is ruthless and able to sacrifice what she sees as petty things in the short term in order to reach her ultimate goal, which seems to be having lots of money. She doesn’t need respectability here and now, living in a basement in order to build her business is fine by her (as opposed to her class obsessed sisters). She reminds everyone several times how much more she thinks her husband will have in the bank in a few years, than they will. She is the perfect example of hardworking aspirational free market capitalists, Mrs Thatcher would be truly proud. Yet at the same time there is a genuine caring, sympathetic edge to her, she really does do the best for her sisters and father. But happily Brighouse doesn’t fall into the trap of Northern emotionalism; in fact the play becomes quite sharp towards the end.
The direction is crisp without being too breezy, and no hint of sentimentality is allowed to creep into the play. The acting is generally excellent, with Carolyn Backhouse as a perfectly stern Maggie and John Savident a perfectly pompous Hobson. Dylan Charles as Willie is a charmingly docile creature, who finally become alive in the final scene (thanks to his wife of course), Alistair Findlay relished the small role of Doctor McFarlane (why are stony faced Calvinist Scots so perfect as Doctors?). The production tours after its run at Chichester (including to Richmond, London), so catch it where you can.