BWW Review: HOBSON'S CHOICE, Jack Studio Theatre
David Lean's films tend to stick in the mind and that's the case with his black and white, grim up North, tour-de-force, Hobson's Choice, for all the typical ripeness of Charles Laughton's performance. So it was a very smart move on the part of director, Matthew Townshend, to open with bobby sox and Teddy Boy threads to locate the action firmly in the late 50s, a period in which teenagers were gaining a financial and social prominence and Britain was beginning its long embrace of consumer culture.
Henry Hobson, an old school Salford widower with a penchant for a pint or six, has three daughters who work in his shoe shop. Alice and Vickey are stereotypical ditzy blondes with a eye for husbands who will assist with their social climbing aspirations, while Maggie sells the shoes, keeps the books and solves every problem. And, probably as a consequence of such confident competence, is on the shelf at the grand old age of 30.
She has other ideas and sees a future in gifted shoehand, Willie Mossop, a near illiterate, meek man who is as surprised as her horrified sisters when Maggie announces their impending marriage. But what will happen to the shop when its only head for business and its only hand for leather desert it? Will the bluff old fool, Hobson, survive without his comfort blanket of daughterly devotion? Will the blondes get husbands without a plan to chisel money from their father's tight fists?
Rhiannon Sommers gives us a Maggie with much in common with another shopkeeper's daughter called Maggie - all single-minded efficiency, eyes on the prize ambition, and energetic "common" sense. It might all be a bit too much were not Michael Brown a perfect foil as Willie, a bundle of social (and, beautifully played, sexual) anxiety wrapped up in working class decency. One could happily watch these two knock it back and forth all evening.
They get fine support from the cast, albeit in roles that feel underwritten these days (Harold Brighouse wrote the play during the First World War). John D Collins huffs and puffs as the feeble martinet Hobson and Greta Harwood and Kelly Aaron deliver a couple of fine turns (literally when they dance) as his younger daughters. There's a lovely cameo too from Natasha Cox as the firm but fair district nurse, her broad West Indian accent a sign of the new Britain emerging from rationing, austerity and insularity.
Brighouse's themes of female business independence and inter-generational conflict over money and property remain as strong today as they were over a hundred years ago, as does his sparkling exchanges, particularly when Maggie is involved or when Hobson is slowly discovering how his choice is limited again.
So if you see one play in South East London this week, make it Hobson's Choice - as t'were.
Photo Peter Clark