HOBSON’S CHOICE – Open Air Theatre, Regent’s Park

BY ‘ECK, IT’S BRIGHOUSE ROCKING INTO THE ‘SIXTIES…

 
Never underestimate a young woman in a neat blue dress from anywhere North of Watford. Especially one called Maggie. One glare, and bullies like old Hobson grumblingly cede their ancient sovereignty, while meek lads like Willie Mossop accept the stern judgement “I’ve got my work cut out, but you’ve the makings of a man about you!”. Bygone ministers may sigh in strangely affectionate recognition…

 
Not that the tease is deliberate: just an incidental pleasure in Nadia Fall’s rousing updating of the Harold Brighouse play about a tyrannical drunken widower ruling over a Salford bootmaker’s shop in the 1880’s. He keeps his three daughters in servitude until the eldest rebels, orders the talented junior boot-maker Willie to marry her, sets up a rival shop to take his best customers, and with a sharp smalltown legal plot liberates her younger sisters to marry their own lads . It’s a well-loved play – and film – but Fall has given it new life and irony by updating it to the 1960’s, another time of social change and female rebellion.

 
Ben Stones’ set, the boot-shop revolving to the street and humble cellar where the newlywed Mossops set up shop, is detailed: but its edges are ragged, ruinous, shading into heaps of bricks, a metaphor for a crumbling way of life. Two theme songs wind in and out occasionally, with the same message of change: Mark Benton’s domineering, pot-bellied old rascal belts out Sinatra, the young ones in their miniskirts twist to Gerry and the Pacemakers. Nice.

 
And goodness, it’s funny: sharp Lancashire humour and crushing put-downs from Maggie are played with fabulous, faultless, dominating energy by Jodie McNee. Her wooing scene is matchless, with initial cowering terror from her swain (“I’m engaged to Ada Figgins!” “Then you’ll get loose of her!” shading to “I’m resigned. You’re growing on me, lass!”.) Karl Davies hilariously conveys Willie’s progress from semi-literate cowed boothand to rising businessman under her tutelage. The pair work beautifully together, with a sudden wedding-night virginal softness and, in Willie’s final confrontation with old Hobson, a transformative moment. As t he contradicts even his fierce wife, across her face spreads a marvellous triumphant grin: at last she’s made him a man worth having. Worth wearing that penny brass wedding-ring for.

 
Benton is a treat too: blustering, losing his grip to alcoholism, ranting against his daughters half- Lear half-Falstaff as he sits reduced to dressing-gown, underpants and a single sock-suspender. He succumbs. Who wouldn’t? But like Falstaff he gets some of the best lines, especially against lawyers. And the whole ensemble is joyful around these three: magic moments include Jordan Metcalfe the uppity solicitor embarrassingly forced by Maggie’s magnetic authority to push a handcart of rag-and-bone furniture “in broad daylight down the streets of Salford!”, and Kate Adler as Ada Figgins threatening to set her Mum on Willie if he jilts her.
In high good humour and throwaway wisdom, here to shame the soppy south is the rising North of all ages: the cobbled quintesscence, the ecky-thumpessence of business nous and female ferocity which made it great. A gorgeous evening.

 

box office 0844 826 4242 to 12 July

Rating:  five 5 Meece Rating

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