Hobson’s Choice has remained a reliable workhorse of British theatre for almost a century because it offers something for everyone. For social reformers there is a feisty heroine in Maggie, challenging and winning against male domination; for lovers of farce there is a honeymoon scene lifted from saucy seaside postcards as Maggie hauls her gormless new husband Willie off to marital bliss; and for the world at large there is a fast-paced three-acter where worms turn, to universal satisfaction.
Jonathan Church’s production for the theatre that he has successfully revitalised as artistic director plays it too safely but misses few tricks. Hobson’s boot and clog shop may perch tentatively on Chichester’s vast stage but there is little reticence in the performances, least of all in Carolyn Blackhouse’s dominating Maggie, often still but always remorseless, who, stung by her father’s conviction that she is “30 and shelved”, quickly transforms the lives of all around through an iron-clad will and the only possible female career move of the time: marriage.
Her mastery extends to the audience and the action stalls when she is out of view. John Savident as Henry Hobson, the domineering patriarch, who treats his three daughters as slave labour and disposable assets, never quite rises to the challenge of being a match for Maggie. He is more blusterer than bully boy and there is little poignancy at his final capitulation. There are other unexplored avenues posing unanswered questions at the climax: has Maggie created a potential tyrant in converting an illiterate bootmaker such as Willie (a self-effacing Dylan Charles) into a captain of industry? Might her obduracy turn her, in time, into her father?
The rest of the cast make the best of caricatures in a play that offers most of the actors a few brief moments of dramatic glory. Alistair Findlay is an effectively abrasive doctor and Annabel Scholey and Katherine Kingsley, as Maggie’s silly sisters, comfortably suggest that they are on lifelong offer to any customer who can pay. Hobson’s Choice succeeds by appealing to popular fantasies in the realistic setting of late Victorian Salford, where wives are dutiful and class rules. That is Harold Brighouse’s achievement in this, his only hit: he offers a slice of life that seems both conveniently distant and recognisably human.
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