Hobson’s Choice (Richmond Theatre)

Hobson’s Choice (Richmond Theatre, until Saturday, April 2nd)

One hundred years old it may be, but in the assured hands of a stupendous cast and creative team the new touring revival of Harold Brighouse’s Hobson’s Choice brushes away the dust to reveal a real treasure.

Not once does the Theatre Royal Bath production run out of steam; this classic tale of a cantankerous Lancashire Victorian shoe shop owner and his three daughters is polished and made to last. It’s a reminder of the quality of Brighouse’s play, written at a time when women’s rights, and the wider fight for liberty and justice, showed a world standing up for itself. It’s a bright and breezy comedy with a tough social edge.

Director Jonathan Church has resisted updating the setting from 1880s Salford and finds every ounce of pathos, humour and brave social comment in the piece. There are some masterpieces of comic timing throughout, such as Willie’s faked snores on the sofa on his wedding night in a bid to avoid his new wife and marital bed – only for her to see through the play-acting and drag him upstairs by his ear.

But it’s not only the direction that makes this so terrific: there’s the top quality cast (even those with brief appearances and few lines have their chance to shine), the glorious brass band music composed by Matthew Scott, an exquisite period set by Simon Higlett – including a revolving stage which is used to hilarious effect at the start of the final act when a well-sozzled Hobson returns home.

Martin Shaw gives an extraordinarily accomplished performance as the curmudgeonly, misogynistic, overbearing widower Henry Hobson, determined to control the lives of his three strong-willed daughters. Shaw has reportedly wanted to play this great comic role for a long time, and he proves his worth a hundredfold.  The play has often been described as a gruff northern take on King Lear and on the evidence of this Shaw should be a shoo-in for the next major production of Shakespeare’s tragedy.

His brilliance in the role never overshadows the rest of the cast. Naomi Frederick gives the hard-working and no nonsense daughter Maggie extra layers of gritty single-mindedness, yet the development of her relationship with the initially simple but talented shoemaker Willie Mossop (a beautifully judged performance of the character’s growing confidence by Bryan Dick) shows clearly her warm-hearted encouragement of his potential.  

The two other daughters are often treated sketchily, but Gabrielle Dempsey and Florence Hall give the girls their own brand of feistiness and they are well-matched by suitors Mark Donald as Albert and Ryan Saunders as Freddie.

Strong support too from Christopher Timothy as Hobson’s friend and drinking partner Jim Heeler, Joanna McCallum as the daunting customer Mrs Hepworth who turns out to be an appreciative benefactor, Ken Drury as the efficient and brusque Dr McFarlane trying to set Hobson on the right path after an attack of the DTs, David Shaw-Parker as loyal old hand Tubby, and Emily Johnstone’s near scene-stealing Ada Figgins, shunted from the path of true love by her single-minded rival.

Every aspect of this well-crafted production drips perfection. It’s as crisp as the well-wrapped packages in the shop and as shiny as the patent leather shoes being sold. As Jonathan Church leaves his successful artistic directorship of Chichester Festival Theatre for pastures new on the other side of the world he delivers an utterly delightful production to be savoured by all tastes.

David Guest

Photo: Nobby Clark