Hobson’s Choice, Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, review

4.00

 

Although written in 1915, and set in 1880, Harold Brighouse’s social comedy is updated here to the Sixties by director Nadia Fall. But it keeps the story of the overbearing, drunken Hobson, who runs a shoe shop in Salford, and how the cleverest of his three daughters contrives to rescue them all from a life of drudging after him through a series of canny marriages and shrewd business decisions. 

The Sixties setting - established from the off with rock’n’roll, mini-skirts and bobs - largely works. The odd line flags an obvious re-write; instead of bothering about bustles, Hobson is harping on hemlines: “skirts so short you could see your breakfast.” But the gender politics, the treatment of women as chattels, rather depressingly don’t need to be updated despite that 80-year time lag. Women may only take the upper hand through sleight of hand.

The great divides of class, the elaborate snobbish British social hierarchies, ring true for the era: Hobson is horrified when his daughter Maggie marries a humble bootmaker. And the exploration of social mobility, the potential of pulling yourself up by - well, yes - your bootstraps, is persuasive in an early-Sixties setting too.

Mark Benton is an appropriately corpulent and loose-lipped Hobson, fitting the memorable description within the play of him as “a dunderheaded lump of obstinacy.” But the show belongs to Jodie McNee as the sparky, no-nonsense Maggie. With crisp comic timing, she gives an exceptionally good performance: stubborn, aggressive even, yet never shrewish. Maggie always gets her own way, yet never seems coquettishly manipulative. We reel at her bossiness - on one level, she could be seen to be as much a tyrant as her loathsome father - and yet we take her warmly to our hearts. It’s a fine balancing act.

Willie, the man she schemes to marry, is played with charm by Karl Davies. A terrified scrap of a thing, he gradually grows in confidence under Maggie’s command - and love. Their nervous scenes of awkward romance on the wedding night make for rare moments of genuine tenderness within a play that is usually unsentimental.

The realistic Salford street set, on a revolving stage and crumbling round the edges, seems overly urban and overly fussy in this outdoor space; the production neither engages with or gains from its atmospheric location.

But the comedy is as broad as their Salford accents, and Hobson’s Choice makes for a light, summery show. Fall exhibits a firm control over the material, delivering a warmly enjoyable evening’s entertainment.

To 12 Jul; openairtheatre.com

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