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HOBSON’S CHOICE Vaudeville, WC2

THE FIRST MAGGIE…
A hairdo can be eloquent. When Bryan Dick as Willie Mossop first emerges quaking with humility from a trapdoor under old Hobson’s shop, above a flapping leather apron and ragged shirt his dishevelled hair sports the nerdiest of centre partings – borderline imbecile indeed, with sad flapping black locks either side. But the redoubtable Maggie, sick of paternal domination, hoicks him out of servitude, marries him by sheer force of character, (“I’m engaged to Ada Figgins!” “Then you’ll get loose of her!”), channels his talent into a rival business, and by the closing scene gormless Willie confronts the drunken old tyrant Hobson in a smart business suit and – crucially – a neatly Brylcreemed side parting.

 

 

It’s a nice detail, and Bryan Dick as Willie steals the show with his moments of terror at Maggie’s resolute advances -“I’ve got my work cut out, but you’ve the makings of a man about you!”. One cannot help thinking fondly of Bernard Levin’s immortal description during the late Cecil Parkinson’s crisis with another Maggie – “He seems to follow the principle of promising to share his life with whichever lady has most recently spoken sharply to him”. Naomi Frederick’s Maggie, brilliantly deadpan in her commanding ways, deals superbly with his very funny wedding-night jitters: I do like a woman with the resolution to haul her diminutive groom to bed by the ear.

 

 

 

So there are great delights in Jonathan Church’s revival of Harold Brighouse’s 1916 play: last time it was in London Nadia Fall updated it to another time of social change and womanly revolution, the 1960s, but Church keeps it resolutely in Victorian period, when fine boots were a pound , clogs a few pence and censorious fathers thought a bustle indecently provocative (“a lump added to nature”). There’s a marvellously evocative set by Simon Higlett (particularly the Salford cellar where Maggie and Willie set up business).

 

 

 
And of course the latest return of the septuagenarian Martin Shaw to the stage is a delight, especially as he storms around in a tornado of outrage and whiskers in the second act when his dissolution has fully set in. He is slightly less convincing – too amusingly lovable – in the first act, and his daughters seem more exasperated than afraid of him; so that when he threatens Willie with his belt, it doesn’t ring quite true. But the second Act’s drunkenly semi-comic Lear rings truer, as do his Goneril and Regan (Florence Hall and Gabrielle Dempsey) when they refuse to move in and look after him, and there a notable, understatedly powerful presence (equivalent I suppose of Lear’s Fool) in David Shaw-Parker as Tubby the clogmaker,

 

 

 
But as ever, it is Maggie who holds the stage, whether dominating her quaking groom or, oddly touchingly, insisting that the rest of the family respect him.
It remains an entertaining evening, a period piece and honourable in the WW1 centenary, reminding us that it was written in a time of social turbulence and female rising as well as carnage and heroism. Though set in the 1880s, its spirit is fiercely, hintingly Edwardian: Brighouse knew what he was doing.

 

 

 
Though of course what he was mainly doing was comedy, in a direct line from Shakespeare’s Shrew and Much Ado. It shows its age, and might have benefited from a trim in the Priestleyesque wordiness of the second act; but Maggie Mossop – née Hobson – remains one of the English stage’s great characters, and it was good to see her back.

 
box office 0330 333 4814 to 10 Sept
rating three   3 Meece Rating

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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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