Hobson's Choice, Young Vic, London

Victorian morality tale misses target as a sitcom

One can see why Tanika Gupta's adaptation of Hobson's Choice seemed a good idea but didn't anyone have a second thought? Harold Brighouse's classic Salford comedy about the downfall of a bullying bootmaker was written in 1914 and set 30 years earlier, in a period when a woman running a business was seen as inherently funny (though the playwright never thinks so).

Making the characters the Hindu inheritors of the local rag trade must have seemed a brilliant way to make the story more exotic as well as up to date. But the superficial similarities between the new characters and the old - present-day Indians, like English Victorians, guard their daughters and are expected to give them dowries - are nothing compared with the huge difference between now and then.

Richard Jones's production keeps the audience as well as the actors on the move. After Durga, the eldest of three downtrodden daughters, talks her father's best tailor, Ali Mossop, into quitting his job and marrying her, we up sticks and cross the road for the wedding feast. It's standing room only while the newlyweds row with Hari Hobson and Durga tricks him into letting her younger sisters marry as well. (Though Dad was furious at Durga marrying a fatherless Muslim, he doesn't seem to even notice that her sisters' boyfriends are both white). Then it's back to the theatre, where Ultz has devised a set so long you'd need six eyes to take it all in, for the final confrontation, with horrible Hari vanquished by the timid Ali.

But while the original play is still a deeply satisfying story of righteousness and imagination triumphing over complacent stupidity, this version is about as believable as if it had been set in the land of the leprechauns. It's simply not possible to credit that in 2003 bossy, super-competent Durga would work for no wages, especially for a coarse old brute like her father - or that her lippy sisters, who outside the shop swap their salwar kameez for microskirts, would be terrified of marrying without his consent.

Nor is this fault-finding that runs counter to the spirit of the play. This rewritten version has no spirit - its actors play with no inflection or distinction. Most of the time Ali says lines that Durga has put in his mouth but the entire cast drone their dialogue with no conviction.

One cannot believe that Paul Bhattacharjee is a fearsome tyrant, much less one who is so awful that he evokes affection with revulsion. This would-be ogre enters mincing, as if his shoes were on the wrong feet, and the toddler hasn't been born who would be frightened by his squinting and lip curling. As Ali, Richard Sumitro acts like a cute puppy. Yasmin Wilde's Durga is pushy enough but the one-note performance admits no tenderness or doubt.

For what is even more jarring than the characters' becoming our contemporaries or changing race is the sitcom nature of the enterprise, made plain by joky entr'acte photos. You can take a story out of its time, but take away its heart and all is lost.

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