Hobson's Choice

Harold Brighouse
Theatre Royal, York
(2005)

Hobson's Choice poster

Legendary panto dame Berwick Kaler in trousers? Yes, it's true! Twenty years after he last appeared in a serious role at this theatre, Mr Kaler has dropped his trademark bloomers - if you'll pardon the expression - and exchanged them for the respectably masculine togs of Victorian patriarch Henry Hobson.

Harold Brighouse's evergreen Northern comedy, memorably filmed with Charles Laughton and John Mills, revolves around the battle of wills between tyrannical bootmaker Hobson and his three daughters. The girls have spent their entire adult lives working in the family business, unpaid and unappreciated. Not surprisingly the two younger sisters, Alice (Elianne Byrne) and Vickey (Miranda Floy), are desperate to fly the coop and marry their upwardly-mobile sweethearts Albert (Justin Grattan) and Fred (Rory Dan Wilder). Unfortunately, even though Hobson is appalled by his daughters' "uppishness" and outrageous dress sense - no decent Salford girl wears a bustle - he's too tight-fisted to provide dowries for them. Enter eldest sister Maggie (Emma Gregory), a first-rate bookkeeper and saleswoman, who uses her business acumen to separate Hobson from his money and acquire a husband for herself - the painfully shy bootmaker Willie Mossop (David Shelley), who under his wife's tuition becomes a force to be reckoned with.

Gregory Floy's cracking revival of this old favourite never puts a foot wrong. Berwick Kaler gives a glorious performance as Hobson, the archetypal self-made man and model of respectability, whose drunken fall into a cellar puts him in danger of the worst humiliation a Northerner can face - seeing the lurid details of the case reported in the Manchester Guardian. Emma Gregory is more than a match for him as the forceful Maggie and her scenes with her nervous new husband are a joy. David Shelley makes his character's transformation from downtrodden employee to full partner in the firm "Mossop and Hobson" totally credible. Truly, behind every great man there is a great woman

Hobson's Choice is one of those plays in which there isn't a single makeweight role. The two younger sisters and their suitors are nicely delineated and there are a couple of lovely cameo roles - posh Mrs Hepworth (Christine Cox) and Dr MacFarlane (Robert Pickavance, possibly the most Scottish Scotsman I've ever seen on stage). Even the tiny part of Willie's unofficial fiancée Ada Figgins (Kathryn Nutbeem) is played for all it's worth - and Ms Nutbeem also sings between the act changes. It all adds up to a near-perfect evening of vintage comedy.

An honourable mention too for first-time designer Lili Rogué, whose simple yet effective sets successfully evoke the atmosphere of the boot shop, Maggie and Willie's humble basement flat and Hobson's sitting room.

At the Theatre Royal, York, until 16th April

Reviewer: J. D. Atkinson