Harold Brighouse, in a new adaptation by Tanika Gupta
Royal Exchange Theatre
Royal Exchange Theatre
Just as Ayub Khan-Din put Bill Naughton's much-loved Northern comedy All In Good Time into the context of a modern, partially-integrated British Asian Family for Rafta, Rafta for the National Theatre in 2007, Tanika Gupta had already done the same with Harold Brighouse's Salford classic Hobson's Choice for the Young Vic in 2003, an adaptation that has been brought closer to home at last by the Royal Exchange and director Atri Banerjee.
Set over a couple of years around the mid-1980s, Henry Hobson's shoe shop has become Hari Hobson's fine tailor's shop, his scheming eldest daughter is called Durga and their nervous but brilliant craftsman in the cellar is Ali Mossop, but Gupta's adaptation goes beyond a few superficial name changes and Asian references. This Hobson family were evacuees from Uganda fifteen years earlier after Idi Amin kicked out all the Ugandan Asians and were taken by the UK—Hobson keeps a picture of the Prime Minister at the time of his rescue, Ted Heath, displayed in his shop, as he sees him as his saviour. He changed the family name from Patel to the more English-sounding Hobson as, in his words, there are too many Patels all running corner shops.
Within this solid new context, the story is pretty faithful to the original. Hobson owns a clothing shop of some small repute, but it is actually run by his three daughters for no wages while he spends most of his days in the pub with his mates. He demands his own way with bigotry and bluster, but the family is on the verge of a rebellion, especially when Hobson threatens to marry off his two younger daughters, Sunita (Maimuna Memon) and Ruby (Safiyya Ingar), but writes off Durga as too old for marriage at 30. This is sparked off when wealthy, respectable Dr Bannerjee (Yasmin Wilde) demands to know who made her latest suit and Ali Mossop is brought out of the workroom to meet his new fan, then Durga gets an idea...
Esh Alladi's terrified, illiterate Ali Mossop is the star of the show in many ways, a beautifully drawn character getting every ounce of physical and verbal comedy from the script while always being the most sympathetic character on stage. The harder characters of Hobson and his eldest daughter seem to have had some of their rougher edges smoothed a bit, which perhaps makes them more believable and sympathetic in some ways. Still, Shalini Peiris's Durga, always the cleverest person in the room, dominates her sisters, her husband and eventually her father and Tony Jayawardena's Hobson is annoying enough to make you want to knock some sense into him, but not to want him to suffer in the way in which he is threatened towards the end.
Designer Rosa Maggoria places the action on a simple wooden floor with sliding sections to transform the scene quickly, with large bundles of cloth and that portrait of Ted Heath hanging overhead in Hobson's shop.
There are a few moments when the production feels a bit flat, mainly when Durga is working through the lengthy details of her various schemes, but I'm sure these will pick up during the run. Overall, the pace is swift and the laughs keep coming, but there are touching moments of family bonds and growing love, as well as the problems and squabbles in families, that will be very familiar to most people.
Gupta's play is both the best of Brighouse's classic play and something new that works just as well for a modern audience, and the Royal Exchange has created a funny and entertaining production of it for the summer.