Hobson’s Choice at the Vaudeville Theatre
The venerable Vaudeville Theatre in the Strand, which once housed legendary Victorian actor Henry Irving in his early career along with countless burlesques and revues, still exudes a defiantly “mutton chops and eel-pie” vibe. The Romanesque building and lightning sheets covering the stage make an obvious contribution to this impression, whilst an inspection of the theatre’s list of past productions is unashamedly slanted in favour of the likes of Terence Rattigan rather than the gloomy scab-picking of post-war agitators like Harold Pinter and John Osborne. Jonathan Church’s production of Hobson’s Choice, which was written by Harold Brighouse and made into a well-regarded film by David Lean in 1954, comfortably splays itself into this nostalgic space with gusto and fine attention to detail. The cast and crew give the story both warmth and charm –although the text’s overwhelmingly nostalgic Englishness is worn more like an impenetrable cloak of chainmail rather than a finely made leather boot.
The play is set in 1880s Manchester with the middle-class clan of widowed shopkeeper Henry Horatio Hobson (Martin Shaw), whose store specialises in footwear. Though business is solid, Hobson feels tormented by the proclaimed “up-ishness” of his three daughters – from the glamorous and shallow Vicky (Gabrielle Dempsey) and Alice (Florence Hall) who are determined to flee the shop into the arms of respectable husbands, to the ambitious and whip-smart Maggie (Naomi Frederick), whose lack of a husband by the age of 30 has seen her categorised as an “old maid”. Maggie, however, is also determined to escape the meaty clutches of her father and conducts an audacious scheme to set up a rival business and marry “beneath her” with the talented but uneducated shoemaker Willie Mossop (Bryan Dick).
The principal and supporting characters convincingly give spark to what on paper is quite a dull and mundane setting for a story: Frederick’s commanding turn as Maggie, barking out orders with pace and clarity that would make Aaron Sorkin tremble with anxiety, is the backbone of the show. But it is Shaw’s red-cheeked, drink-sodden Hobson who is the star, with the actor’s usual sensitivity submerged under a farcically arrogant and self-pitying portrayal of English patriarchy. He bellows and wails his lines with the volume of Brian Blessed and a curiously Sean Connery-like cadence – or rather “cadensshe” – which means the audience has just as much fun as he is evidently having.
Hobson’s Choice, as a whole, infectiously spreads good cheer, whilst not neglecting to craft engaging social insights into the family dynamics of Victorian England. It is staged without a hint of modernity, so no doubt visiting Anglophiles will be in heaven, and the attending onlookers’ sea of silver hair may also indicate a very receptive audience is primed for this production. As for the story, it seems to be basically a prototypical sitcom albeit one with, thanks to Brighouse, superior dialogue and plotting. This is cosy, unchallenging theatre – certainly not a microwave meal but hardly a gourmet feast either.
Photo: Nobby Clark
Hobson’s Choice is at the Vaudeville Theatre from 8th June until 10th September 2016, for further information or to book visit here.
Watch the trailer for Hobson’s Choice here: