Following successful recent West End transfers of both Mrs Henderson Presents and The Father, Theatre Royal Bath Productions are currently delighting audiences at the Vaudeville with a revival of Harold Bridghouse’s Victorian-set comedy, Hobson’s Choice, taking its name from the proverbial expression meaning to have no choice at all, and which first premiered in New York one hundred years ago this year.
Martin Shaw, still remembered by many in the audience for his role in the hit 1970s television show The Professionals, is wonderfully grotesque and debauched-looking as the eponymous patriarch -Henry Horatio Hobson; a boot-maker struggling to control his three unmarried daughters, Maggie (Naomi Frederick), Vickey (Gabrielle Dempsey) and Alice (Florence Hall), whom he graciously deigns to ‘keep’ whilst expecting them to work in his shop without pay. But whilst he thinks it acceptable to pass most of his time at the local public house after lecturing them about getting ‘bumptuous’, some interesting changes are about to take place that will irrevocably disrupt his long-held hierarchy.
Frederick is exceptionally well cast as Maggie, the eldest, bossiest, and most astute daughter, who shows us just what an artful saleswoman she is when Albert Prosser (Joe Bannister), a young solicitor, calls at the shop in order to court her younger sister Alice without the least intention of purchasing anything, but whom she nevertheless persuades to part with £1 for a pair of boots. Dissatisfied at the idea that her prettier sisters are the only ones expected to marry and thereby gain independence, Maggie is determined to shrug off the role of spinster which her father has mapped out for her at the ripe old age of 30, by cajoling star boot-maker, Willie Mossop (Bryan Dick) into marrying her. The revolt of her other sisters is inevitable as is the demise of Hobson’s when Maggie and Willie set up a rival boot-makers.
While the comedy element sparkles and fizzes, Hobson’s Choice also provides a thought-provoking insight into a time when women didn’t have the vote and were simply expected to bow to male dictates, with Frederick stealing the show as one of the most interesting feminist characters in the history of English theatre. Just like Victorian misogyny Hobson’s bigotry is ultimately doomed thanks to Maggie’s cleverly masterminded (though fully deserved) manipulation of him, while she is only too pleased when her own husband finally mans up – shortly following their wedding night – and is soon in a position to set his own terms to his father-in-law when they eventually go into business together. Shaw makes a convincing comedy drunk, particularly in the second half and possesses a strong rapport with both Frederick and Dick that provides a highly entertaining and absorbing finale.
It’s hard to recall a more enjoyable evening at the theatre and this fine centenary production deserves a whole gamut of awards. Director Jonathan Church (artistic director of Chichester Festival Theatre since 2006) has shown a wonderfully intuitive interpretation of a play that has more than stood the test of time and is an absolute pleasure to revisit thanks to a quality cast, slick direction and highly evocative set and costume design by Simon Higlett. Literally oozing Northern charm, irony and wit, purchasing a ticket should be no choice at all.
Hobson’s Choice at the Vaudeville Theatre, 404 Strand, London WC2R 0NH, until Saturday 10th September 2016. Running time approximately 2hrs and 10mins including one interval. For more information and tickets visit the website.