Hobson’s Choice is a very good play. It is described as author Harold Brighouse’s masterpiece and that’s not hyperbole. It has a beautifully constructed plot, with totally believable characters. It tells some truths about human beings and although set in 1880 it still has resonance today. It is also very funny.
Jonathan Church’s production makes the most of all these strengths. For some years he was the successful director of Chichester Festival Theatre and before that was at Salisbury Playhouse, where his imaginative pairings of plays by Marivaux and by the Restoration woman dramatist Aphra Behn are still remembered and admired.
Harold Horatio Hobson is a self-made man – a man who has pulled himself up by his boot-straps to build a successful Salford bootmaking business. He is also an overbearing, drunken bully who treats his three daughters like servants and humiliates the oldest, Maggie, as a spinster whom no man would marry.
He refuses to see hat Maggie IS the business, although this is blindingly obvious to everyone, including the boot and clog-makers, who tellingly work underneath the shop in the cellar, reached by a trapdoor. Maggie is the best saleswoman (her sisters are decorative but vain and not very bright). She is the accountant. She knows what to order and how to talk to the employees.
So when Maggie marries Willie Mossop, most talented of the bootmakers, and walks out, Hobson won’t accept that his business and his life will rapidly go downhill.
Martin Shaw, much-loved star of stage and countless television dramas including Inspector George Gently and Judge John Deed, played Willie Mossop many years ago. He always dreamed of playing Hobson and now, with a fat suit and an utterly convincing Salford accent (overlaid with a delicious bit of “middle-class” pretension), he inhabits the role to the manner born.
The Bath audience greeted his first entrance with a round of applause, which marked his celebrity, but the roar of enthusiasm at the end reflected the strength and quality of his performance.
He manages to be repellent – you cheer inwardly for Maggie and even more for Willie as they stand up to him. But he also manages to touch your heart. You want to slap and shake him as he refuses to acknowledge where drink and bullying have taken him, but you also want to see things put right.
Naomi Frederick is a wonderful Maggie, fearless, strikingly intelligent and bossy in a way that is both irritating and funny. She seems to foreshadow another Maggie who knew how to run a business (country) but who lacked that extra attribute of self-knowledge that allows Maggie Hobson to also know how to give her man (Bryan Dick) confidence and self-belief.
The supporting cast are uniformly excellent, from the sisters (Gabrielle Dempsey and Florence Hall) to their handsome beaux (Mark Donald and Ryan Saunders) and the important smaller roles of Jim Heeler, Hobson’s friend (played by Martin Shaw’s real-life friend Christopher Timothy), Tubby Wadlow the foreman (David Shaw-Parker), Dr McFarlane (Ken Drury) and Mrs Hepworth (Joanna McCallum).
There are shades of King Lear and his daughters in Hobson’s Choice, happily without the deaths and torture, but the old man has to learn a harsh lesson before he can understand the changing world and the value of his oldest daughter. Perhaps Mr Shaw will one day stretch his considerable talents – and enthrall his many fans – by taking on that massive tragic role.
In the meantime, get a ticket if you can for this wonderful production, which continues at Bath until 5th March and is hopefully heading for the West End.
Pictured: Martin Shaw as Henry Hobson and Naomi Frederick as Maggie Hobson; and Christopher Timothy as Jim Heeler and David Shaw-Parker as Tubby Wadlow. Photos by Nobby Clark