Open Air Theatre Regent's Park
Harold Brighouse’s perennial comedy on gender roles and class divisions has been pleasing audiences since it was first seen in 1915—surprisingly, perhaps, in New York (it reached the West End a year later).
This story of a strong-willed woman who sees the skill of the meek but clever-fingered shoemaker working in her shop-owning father’s cellar as the means for both of them to escape his domination has been famously filmed, turned into a British ballet and an American musical and lightly reworked by Tanika Gupta more recently, who turned the Hobsons into an Asian family in modern Salford.
Director Nadia Fall and her designer Ben Stones have moved the Salford setting forward from the 1880s, when Brighouse set it, to the 1960s, perhaps the last date when any caucasian British women would put up with the way many men treated them.
The set plonks a Salford street corner in the middle of Regent’s Park’s bucolic setting, rising high enough to block out trees, revolving to give us Hobson’s shoe shop inside and later to give us the less salubrious home where Willie and Maggie start their wedded life and business partnership.
Its shattered upper stories and the rubble of bricks around the stage at first suggest we are in the bomb-damaged '40s, but Fall opens her production with the younger members of the cast doing the Madison, a line-dance that didn’t reach the UK until 1960, and then brings on a very drunk Henry Hobson singing Sinatra’s “That’s Life”, who is no sooner through the shop door than he’s dashing upstairs to the family quarters to throw up.
You couldn’t pinpoint the date more accurately. That’s not bomb damage but a metaphor for the crumbling of a whole lot of ancient attitudes and a practical reminder that whole swathes of Victorian housing were being replaced.
Mark Benton is almost ideal casting for Henry Hobson. Rotund and rolling and rigidly insisting on his paternal authority, you could even believe it is the daughters who have driven him to drink with their mini-skirts and modern ways. His wife used to keep them in order; now he’s widowed and can’t cope.
Now he’s round the pub leaving the girls to run the shop, or rather eldest daughter Maggie. He wants the younger daughters married off, but sees 30-year-old Maggie as the spinster who will devote her life to looking after him.
This production and Jodie McNee’s performance put Maggie at the centre of everything. Her carefully controlled portrayal dominates the play—and rightly so. She is as tough as they come, but there is a heart of gold under that frontage.
It's not until she realises the economic potential of Mossop that she rebels. Hobson is soon so out of his depth, you almost feel sorry for him, until he decides to take a belt to employee Willie whom Maggie has announced is going to marry her.
Karl Davies’s Willie Mossop is a match; played much younger than Maggie's 30 years, we see him change, under her tutelage and affection, into a different man. This is a marriage of convenience and economic partnership that turns into a romance. Fall adds a lovely touch with Willie, terrified of what’s expected on his first night of husbanding, relaxing with his guitar. A romantic serenade makes a magical transformation.
Joanna David plays posh customer Mrs Hepworth, whose recognition of Willie’s skill sets the whole plot in motion—“a business idea in the shape of a man” as Maggie puts it. Bill Fellows is Hobson’s drinking chum and Richard Syms, Hobson’s obedient foreman. Kate Adler is the gormless daughter of Willie’s domineering landlady who thinks she’s engaged to Willie, and Robin Bowerman is Scottish Dr MacFarlane, whose prescription for Hobson’s alcoholism is pills, abstinence and Maggie.
Hannah Britland and Nadia Clifford as Maggie’s sisters and their fellas—Leon Williams as Fred Beenstock and Jordan Metcalfe as solicitor Albert Prosser, who both get caught up in the plot to over-rule Hobson—are an interesting portrayal of social attitudes and all turn in a twist at Maggie and Willie’s wedding party.
They all contribute to a comedy that sometimes become farcical and sometimes, as one’s understanding of Henry’s character grows, almost into tragedy (think King Lear). It is a delightful revival whose redating works (though I question whether Hobson would get away without paying his daughters—what about PAYE and all the other legalities?).
As well as being very enjoyable, it has a serious edge that makes one wonder how much attitudes have really changed.
Reviewer: Howard Loxton