by Harold Brighouse
Directed by Jonathan Church
Designed by Simon Higlett
Theatre Royal Bath production
Saturday 5th March 2016, 14.30
CAST (in order of appearance):
Vickey Hobson – Gabrielle Dempsey
Alice Hobson – Florence Hall
Maggie Hobson – Naomi Frederick
Albert Prosser – Mark Donald
Henry Horatio Hobson – Nartn Shaw
Mrs Hepworth, a rich customer- Joanna McCallum
Jim Heeler – Christopher Timothy
Timothy Wadlow – David Shaw-Parker
Williw Mossop – Bryan Dick
Ada Figgins – Emily Johnstone
Freddie Beenstock- Ryan Saunders
Dr McFarlane – Ken Drury
I’d always thought the expression “Hobson’s Choice” dated from this 1915 play by Harold Brighouse, and the subsequent films. Not so. It dates from one Thomas Hobson (1544-1631) who owned a livery stable in Cambridge. Annoyed that the best-looking horses were being worked too hard, he instituted a policy where you could hire a horse but only the one in the stall nearest the door. There was no choice. The 20th century version of Hobson’s Choice was Henry Ford’s dictum, You can have any colour you like as long as it’s black. It’s Take it or leave it. It differs from the dilemma that has replaced it in frequency, Sophie’s Choice.
Oddly, Brighouse’s very British play debuted in Atlantic City, USA in 1915, before moving to London in 1916. Brighouse set it in 1880, repeating the magic formula of fiction: set it thirty to forty years in the past. It joined An Inspector Calls and The Importance of Being Earnest as a solid favourite of amateur companies over many decades. That’s partly why we wanted to see it, but the clincher was “Directed by Jonathan Church.” Mr Church is the Chichester artistic director and his productions of Amadeus (2014) and Mack and Mabel (2015) were both in my round-up of “Best of The Year.” Simon Higlett, designed both of those as well as the RSC’s Love’s Labours Lost / Love’s Labour’s Won. Not surprisingly some of the cast are drawn from recent Chichester productions. Gabrielle Dempsey was in The Rehearsal, my “Best play of 2015,” Bryan Dick was in Amadeus, Mark Donald was in The Young Chekhov trilogy.
I hate to see “STARRING …” on a play ticket, even if it’s Kenneth Branagh, Jude Law or Benedict Cumberbatch. Martin Shaw (The Professionals) gets billed as STARRING on the ticket. Shaw and Christopher (It Shouldn’t Happen To A Vet) Timothy get whole page bios in the programme, the only ones who do so, and separately in front of the cast list. It’s an obsession with popular TV shows that should be irrelevant. Christopher Timothy takes his minor supporting role as Jim Heeler very well (as expected) but he must be embarrassed to be billed above the other actual star roles, which are dictated by the script: Hobson’s daughter, Maggie and her (enforced) husband, Willie. When I sought images for this online, I could only find the one of Naomi Frederick (if they appear later they’ll be added, but this was at the end of the Bath run.)
The play was written during the suffragette movement, and is based around bootmaker and widower Henry Hobson in 1880s Salford, and his three “uppity” daughters, Maggie, Vicky and Alice. The assertive Maggie, aged thirty, recruits meek and mild boothand Willie to be her husband. Willie is torn from working in the cellar for a pittance to become a shop owner / entrepreneur and a man of importance, due to Maggie’s controlling prompting.
Act I: super saleswoman Maggie (Naomi Frederick) forces Albert Prosser to buy new boots.
Hobson attends to Mrs Hepworth
It rests on the two brilliant leads, Naomi Frederick as Maggie, and Bryan Dick as Willie. There are jokes desperate to be made about a man named Dick playing a character called …I think deliberately … Willie. I don’t want to push them, because Bryan Dick’s performance was wonderful from beginning to end, and the true centrepiece of the production. When the play was first performed in America in 1915, contemporary reviews mentioned “the most Rabelesian line ever spoken on a New York stage.” After Willie is told by Maggie to marry him, the line takes place after the wedding. The reception is in the cellar of Willie’s new shop, and he is terrified of the wedding night. As he is near-illiterate, Maggie is encouraging him to write by copying texts on a slate. The text he’s copying while she changes for bed is “Great things come from little.” This is the motif of the whole play, as Willie, the talented but shy and unassuming boot maker becomes the partner and boss. But in the wonderful silent scene on the wedding night, “Great things come from little” is an erectile joke that must have shocked Atlantic City in 1915.
Alice, Vickey and Prosser. Act III
The original subtitle was A Lancashire Comedy in Four Acts. Maggie and Willie. Are they the origin of a Lancashire cliché? Or are they merely continuing examples of it? It’s the classic Blackpool seaside postcard joke: shorter man and taller commanding woman, though in the cliché she’s big in all directions, while Naomi Frederick is only larger vertically. It’s a reversal of the standard gender division on dimensions, and is so popular in Lancashire folklore that you almost wonder if tiny men and large ladies are in the local DNA. George Formby, Jimmy Clitheroe et al. The little man is also, it is hinted, terrified of the sexual demands of the larger woman. No one has ever done the role better than Bryan Dick. He looks the part, he sounds the part. A 5 star performance. It’s a situation where the man works hard at manual jobs and the wife controls the money. My mother would recount how her miner father and brothers would hand over their pay packets unopened in 1930s Wales, and be handed their meagre pocket money by the wife who literally held the purse strings. She told my Dorset dad about this on a weekly basis, but it fell on totally deaf ears. We’re good at deaf ears in Dorset.
A never ending seaside joke
At the end of Act III, where Willie is terrified of the wedding night to come, you think this is a superb play. Willie has several minutes without lines, trying to avoid entering the bedroom and it’s marvellous stuff. Act III is the cream of the play. It’s peppered with lawyer jokes from Hobson, and lawyer jokes never fail. The plot hinge is centred on Act III and it is an extremely creaky hinge too. The drunken Hobson has fallen into Freddie Beenstock’s flour cellar, and at Maggie’s instigation, Albert Prosser, Alice’s lawyer beau draws up a charge of trespassing and spying on trade secrets. Freddie Beenstock is Vickey’s intended. Hobson has to agree to their marriages to settle the charges. It’s not a strong plot device, but this cast carry it off with aplomb. There are lines in there that probably do better in 2016 than they did a hundred years earlier. Hobson is terrified that his drunken behaviour will wind up in the Salford Reporter.
The wedding breakfast … Willie far left
Martin Shaw as Henry Hobson, in Act III, the cellar wedding breakfast scene
HOBSON: When there is ruin and disaster, and outrageous fortune overwhelms a man of my importance to the world, it isn’t only the Salford Reporter that takes note of it. This awful cross that’s come to me will be recorded in the Manchester Guardian for the whole of Lancashire to read.
WILLIE. Eh, by gum, think of that! To have your name appearing in the Guardian! Why, it’s very near worth while to be ruined for the pleasure of reading about yourself in a printed paper.
Hmm. A few modern resonances there! Then we have that Willie … won’t he … ending. To my surprise the very last sequence is in the original stage instructions. A great place to have wound up the play, but …
As Harold Brighouse, like Shaw, was a stalwart for the Society of Authors, I’m loathe to criticize him. But his Act IV, largely, brings it down a notch. We have a scene with Hobson, his pal Heeler (Christopher Timothy) and the doctor which might have shimmered and sparkled with relevance in 1915 USA, just ahead of looming prohibition. The doctor berates Hobson for his alcohol problems. A hundred years later, it’s a truly flat, dull interchange, and the dullest part of the play. It slows right down. It’s not the fault of the actors, but of the lines. Then it goes into an overt King Lear parallel with Hobson as Lear and the three daughters. We are so relieved to see the women and Willie back … the electricity just fades away without them on stage.
Act 4: Gabrielle Dempsey (Vickey), Martin Shaw (Hobson), Florence Hall (Alice) in the King Lear parallel scene.
Is the play worthy of its centenary revival? This production is well worth seeing for the incredibly detailed three-part set design alone. It’s fast, it’s funny, it is indeed “delightfully light” to quote reviews. The dialogue reads snappily on the printed page. The three daughters, are all great creations, as is Willie and the girls’ suitors. Gabrielle Dempsey as Vickey, and Florence Hall as her sister, Alice, worked perfectly in roles that are partly interchangeable, but they created a great duo. I’m not so sure about the central character of Hobson. Martin Shaw is unrecognizable and throws vanity to the winds as the ageing drunken Hobson. However the intrinsic character of Hobson is tired, and a cliché. But I suppose the same is true of Falstaff. Tell that to Anthony Sher!
It is now touring the country: Milton Keynes, Bolton, Norwich, Richmond. I’ll be extremely surprised if it does not have a West End run.
And I was right … the London run is June to September at the Vaudeville Theatre in London, and the posters now have Martin Shaw, Naomi Frederick and Bryan Dick’s names listed in the press adverts … Christopher Timothy joins them online. Quite right, too.
LINKS TO REVIEWS ON THIS BLOG:
The Rehearsal, by Jean Anouilh, Chichester Minerva Theatre