Hobson’s Choice - a comedy about a bombastic cobbler - may have been written back in 1916 (and set in Salford circa 1880) but Nadia Fall’s production of Harold Brighouse’s classic feels fabulously fresh.
Fall has transposed the action to the swinging sixties as the costumes (think bobs and mini skirts) and music (expect plenty of Gerry and the Pacemakers) attest and it works. Wonderfully so.
Mark Benton’s is excellent as the Lear-esque Henry Hobson who is totally dependent on his three unmarried daughters. Even at his most tyrannical you can’t help but smile at the proud proprietor’s drunken renditions of Frank Sinatra’s My Life and sympathise when he succumbs to full blown alcoholism.
But it’s Jodie McNee as the plain speaking eldest daughter, Maggie, who is the play’s real star. McNee captures Maggie’s insightfulness - she spots the true potential of Willie Mossop (Hobson’s timid, underpaid apprentice) - and ruthlessness as sets about marrying a reluctant Willie, telling him: “When I make arrangements, my lad, they’re not made for upsetting.”
Yet McNee also shows that under the bristle, Maggie is as vulnerable as they come. This is arguably best demonstrated in the wedding night scene when rather than being brusque, McNee’s Maggie comes across as bashful: she is just as shy as Willie (Karl Davies) who positively trembles in his boots about the prospect of making love to Maggie on their wedding night.
Davies is delightful as the lowly boot-maker who, under his wife's guidance, grows in confidence to become a man of independent means.
There are two comedic cameos from Richard Syms, as Hobson’s employee Tubby, and Robin Bowerman as Hobson’s long-suffering physician - but it’s the genuine love and respect that develops between Maggie and Willie that will warm you even if (given that the play is staged in the open air environs of Regent’s Park) the weather won’t.
Regardless Brigson’s play, which next year will celebrate its 100 anniversary, has weathered well. To the audiences of today the issues of class division and women’s rights remain prevalent.
Hobson’s Choice, until 12 July (www.openairtheatre.com)