I last saw this play about thirty years ago, and I confess I don’t remember very much about the production. I was in two minds about booking this time as I assumed my lack of memory about the first show meant that it’s probably not a very good play. But I was wrong. Given the fact that in four years’ time Harold Brighouse’s “Hobson’s Choice” will be receiving its telegram from the Queen, it’s still a remarkably relevant and pertinent play. Set in 1880, Henry Horatio Hobson is a respectable but bullying widower, parent to three daughters all of whom work in his boot and shoe emporium. Eldest daughter Maggie is full of ambition and she chooses the timid but skilful Willie Mossop to be her husband and business partner. The rest of the play follows the rising and falling fortunes of the wider family. And it’s a really entertaining and thought-provoking show.
The flexible space of the Crucible works well to suggest the austere comfort of the middle class shop with its basement workshop, and the six younger main characters sat snugly around the table for Maggie and Willie’s wedding breakfast suggest a desire for upward mobility whilst still being relatively poor. Lighting effects provide all the necessary external scenery and the attention to detail in the set and in the costumes, comfortably evocative of Salford in 1880, are rewarding to take in. I also loved the fact that it was properly blocked! Such basic skills seem to be going out of fashion, but Christopher Luscombe’s direction is smart, clear and allows the text to do the work.
Hobson is played by Barrie Rutter, whom I haven’t seen since he was in the National Theatre’s Guys and Dolls back in 1982. I had read some criticism about the way he reads this role, with the suggestion of too much pantomime bluster and not enough “getting to the heart of the character”. Well there’s no doubt that he plays it for all the laughs – but then again, it’s a funny script, so why not? Personally I thought he got the character spot on. It’s a technically perfect performance, showing great comic timing, and a splendidly physical presence, in which the character’s changing fortunes are well reflected. When his arrogant swagger of the first act is replaced by a worn, tired, sick shuffle towards the end of the play it speaks volumes.
There is also a very powerful performance from Zoe Waites as Maggie. Firm and fair throughout, you slowly see her get what she wants in order to benefit not only herself and her husband but her sisters too. It’s a fascinating character – the ambitious woman, thought by her father to be too old to marry off; having to fight hard for what she believes is right; but always playing fair. When the lawyer Prosser (brightly portrayed by Harry Waller) tries to ask for £1000 as settlement on the trumped-up case they all created to trick Hobson, she is dismayed at the greed and insists that £500 is the maximum that is fair. And when Hobson is sick and needs someone to look after him, despite all the ambition, it is Maggie who stands by him. So although Maggie is the prime mover against the status quo, it is she who retains the moral high ground throughout the play. Zoe Waites is every inch this strong moral woman and completely commands the stage.
There are some wonderfully funny moments. When Hobson arrives at the newlywed Mossops’ basement, all the wedding guests are sent to the bedroom to hide, and Mossop slinks off with them. A simple movement but the impact was hilarious. Also when Prosser tries formally to reply to Mossop’s thank-you speech, the puncturing of his pomposity is beautifully delivered by Cassie Atkinson’s Alice in a sharp one-word retort. Just little moments – but they work a treat.
The other really strong performance is by Philip McGinley as Mossop. His discomfort at the attention of Miss Maggie in the early part of the play is a delight and he plays the weakly timid character to great effect in the scene with his current “tokened” girlfriend Ada. As his character progresses he grows physically with it, so that when he stands up to his father in law he really is finally a man; and it makes his wife’s face positively burn with pride and attraction. “The younger rises when the old doth fall” says Edmund in King Lear, and it’s true for the contrary fortunes of Mossop and Hobson, in a play which has many nodding acquaintances with Lear.
All in all a most satisfying production, which made me very glad I parted with my £15 for a top price matinee seat. It’s a steal. It’s on at the Crucible until 25th June. There’s no excuse not to go!