Many years ago, I studied Hobson’s Choice for GCSE English, and my lasting memory is of our teacher trying to convince us to read it out in a Salford accent (a suggestion met with all the derision you’d expect from a class of 15-year-old girls). What I didn’t remember was it being set in the 1950s – mostly because it wasn’t; the action of Harold Brighouse’s play, first performed in 1916, originally took place in 1880. Newly reimagined for a different generation by Matthew Townshend, the play proves just as entertaining and relevant as ever – although it is depressing to reflect that in many ways not a lot has changed, both between 1916 and 1958, and between 1958 and now.
Henry Hobson (John D Collins) is the father of three daughters. He’s also the owner of a successful shoe shop – although the success has little to do with him, as he’s usually in the pub. Instead, his oldest daughter Maggie (Rhiannon Sommers) runs the business, much to the amusement of her two younger sisters Alice (Greta Harwood) and Vickey (Kelly Aaron), who are too busy enjoying themselves to be a lot of help. Hobson complacently assumes Maggie’s too old to marry – right up until she decides her future lies with the shop’s shy but brilliant bootmaker William Mossop (Michael Brown). Having convinced her intended that it’s a good idea (those two little words every woman wants to hear on her wedding day: “I’m resigned”) she sets about turning Will into the man she knows he can be, and in doing so puts her bullying father firmly in his place.
Rhiannon Sommers gives a commanding and very funny central performance as the supremely confident Maggie; cool, calm and entirely in control throughout, she nonetheless shows us glimpses of vulnerability, which prevent her from coming across as manipulative or cruel. And there are aspects of her story that resonate even now; the idea that women have a sell-by date remains widespread, as does the belief that women must be “feisty” if they want to succeed in what is still very much a man’s world.
That man’s world, in this case, is run by pompous patriarch Hobson, played wonderfully by John D Collins. He bullies all three of his daughters, expecting them to work unpaid in his shop and repeatedly accusing them of “uppishness”, and consequently it’s hard to feel much sympathy for the pathetic figure he ultimately becomes – even though two of his daughters are particularly unpleasant. Greta Harwood and Kelly Aaron are exquisitely irritating as Alice and Vickey, Maggie’s whiney, self-involved younger sisters. They’re interested only in capturing rich husbands Albert and Fred, who are so bland and interchangeable that both are played by Connor McCreedy with only a change of glasses to differentiate between them.
With the action taking place in two separate locations, Martin Robinson’s set is a work of genius, transforming very quickly and neatly. There’s a clear symbolic difference between the two settings; while Hobson’s shop could easily be back in 1880, the cellar where Maggie and Will live and work is very clearly from the 1950s – as are the play’s costumes, soundtrack and dance moves. There’s a strong sense that change is coming, and to bring the point even more firmly home, the doctor called out to treat Hobson in act 2 – originally a man – is replaced by no-nonsense District Nurse McFarlane, in a brief but hilariously memorable appearance by Natasha Cox.
To watch Hobson’s Choice as a woman in her 30s, particularly – gasp! – an unmarried one, is a very different experience to reading it (with or without the Salford accent) as a teenager. Back then, I probably did think Maggie was getting on a bit, and nor did I fully appreciate the barriers women faced – and continue to face over a century after the play was written. This excellent production offers a welcome opportunity to revisit a classic with fresh eyes, and to be well and truly entertained in the process.
Hobson’s Choice is at the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre until 15th September.
Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉