Nadia Fall succeeds brilliantly in the complex and delicate job of making Harold Brighouse’s 1915 north-of-England comedy both socially and emotionally plausible a century later.
The first thing the director does is update the setting from 1880 to the 1960s – the main musical motifs are Gerry and the Pacemakers’ “How Do You Do It?” and Frank Sinatra’s “That’s Life”. This means that we can no longer think of Henry Horatio Hobson as an ignorant yet endearing period piece, his domestic tyrannies a quaint product of his time. Mark Benton’s Hobson is fairly sympathetic in the first phase – largely ineffectual, all bluster – and is more or less ignored by his three daughters at home, if not in the Salford boot-making business he runs.
When he takes his belt to hapless apprentice Willie Mossop (Karl Davies), however, Hobson’s brutality becomes palpable and undeniable. And all this because his eldest daughter Maggie has dared to set her cap at Willie, no matter that the lad himself had neither desire nor say in the matter. Then, in the final act, as Hobson faces a solitary death due to alcoholism, he regains some sympathy – not through any softening on his own part but rather through the hardness of his two younger daughters. Having themselves married, they refuse to tend to him, leaving Maggie and Willie to return to the fold, but on their own terms.
If this makes Hobson look like a Lancastrian Lear, Maggie also takes on a Shakespearean air. She is akin to both Petruchio and Kate at the end of the best productions of The Taming of the Shrew: her sharp tongue and determination have remade Willie into her own vision of him, but it is a vision of independence and equality, of mutual love and also mutual respect.
Herein lies the principal stroke of genius: that Nadia Fall and actor Jodie McNee have unobtrusively turned this from the story of Hobson (with Willie a perfunctory counterweight), into a tale where the viewpoint character is Maggie. To pull this off without short-changing the comedy is a work of mastery. Fall’s stock as a director has been rising through productions such as The Doctor’s Dilemma and Home at the National Theatre; now the final, clinching proof of her skills comes in the deceptively bucolic setting of Regent’s Park.