Hobson's Choice

Harold Brighouse
Chichester Festival Theatre
(2007)

Carolyn Backhouse (Maggie Hobson), John Savident (Hobson). Photo by Maule Harlan

One of the classics of the twentieth century is here directed by Artistic Director Jonathan Church in his second season at Chichester and, with at least two of this year’s productions successfully transferring to the West End (with I suspect more to come), I think it’s safe to assume that his tenure at the Festival Theatre is proving a tremendous success. Church has provided the people of Chichester (who are never slow at coming forward to give their opinions) a taste of everything – Shakespeare (tragedy and comedy), classic drama, world premieres of new writing and a light-hearted summer musical. Last night’s full house proved that he certainly knows what he is doing and audiences are coming back in droves.

John Savident, formally a member of Laurence Olivier’s second Chichester company and now well known as Coronation Street's Fred Elliott, is the irascible, loud voiced Henry Horatio Hobson, the owner of a boot maker’s shop in industrial Lancashire at a time when the cotton manufacturing industry brought the county wealth, but divided the social classes. Those who owned the mills were rich – those who worked in them were not. The “Magnificence of Trade” was middle class, and two of Hobson’s daughters are very conscious of their place in life and anxious to improve their standing.

Convinced that eldest daughter, Maggie, is “shelved” (too old at thirty to attract a husband), Hobson believes she will be there for ever to run the shop and look after him, while he spends most of his time in the pub. Maggie, though, can be just as forceful as her overbearing father, and she has other ideas.

The scene is beautifully set as the audience files in and an old cobbler is concentrating on the pair of boots he is making. Two sharp taps with his hammer silences the chattering audience and this scene is whisked away to be replaced by a boot shop interior, the smoking mill chimneys visible in the distance. Simon Higlett’s excellently detailed set later reverses to become the cellar home of newly wed Maggie – not shelved after all.

This is a production which will put a smile on your face and keep it there, with laughter constantly bubbling to the surface. From the moment that one of her sister’s suitors enters, ostensibly to buy a pair of boot laces, and fast-talking Maggie manages to sell him a pair of boots – with free laces included – we can see who is in charge here, and when she discovers that William Mossop, the young illiterate man working in the cellar for a pittance, can make boots like no other she decides that he will do very nicely for her. The poor man doesn’t stand a chance.

It is an absolute joy to watch Dylan Charles’ expressions, first horrified at the idea of marrying Maggie, resigned when he realises she gives him no choice, and gradual growing in confidence under her tuition until eventually he even manages to stand up to her. Lizzie Winkler’s role as his original intended is short-lived – but very comical.

Carolyn Backhouse is a remarkable fast-talking (occasionally a little too rushed) business-like Maggie organizing everything and everyone – especially her father – and what an amazing amount of dialogue.

The only criticism I have of this show is the long drawn out scene with the doctor warning Hobson of the consequences of too much alcohol – not only seeming to moralise, but the Scottish accent of the doctor was not easy to understand. Apart from that – splendid performances all round and a thoroughly enjoyable show with the buzz of a departing audience chattering just as much as when they came in. Always a good sign!

Interestingly the term “Hobson’s Choice” derives from a sixteenth century horse trader who gave his customers no choice at all. In this case it is Henry Horatio Hobson who has no choice.

Reviewer: Sheila Connor