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Hobson's Choice

A woman's foolishness begins where a man's leaves off
---Henry Horatio Hobson, on the foolishness of the three daughters who have been unpaid shopkeepers in his boot shop but who he feels have shown dismaying signs of "uppishness."
Napoleon dubbed the English as a nation of shopkeepers but it took Harold Brighouse to create one of the most amusing family of trades people to ever grace the stage: Henry Horatio Hobson, the bullying proprietor of Salford's leading boot shop, circa 1880, and the three daughters who have been saddled with looking after his shop as well as his personal well-being since their mother's death .

The play has a lot to say about the exploitation of labor and the treatment of women and alcoholism. It even has a touch of King Lear. However, its enduring audience appeal stems less from an appreciation of its themes than from its being an enjoyable, well made comedy of manners and character, as well as a gift to its actors, especially the three main roles which attract good actors like magnets. At the center of this trio is the clever oldest daughter, Maggie. Her faith in the shop's timid but talented boot maker, Willie Mossop, brings happiness to all in a thoroughly satisfying climax, gently forces old Hobson to make the right and only choice left to him — shades of the customers of his real namesake, a sixteenth century liveryman named Thomas A. Hobson, who gave them a choice between the next horse or none at all). Director David Warren couldn't have made a better choice himself than to offer the gift of these rich parts to Martha Plimpton, Brian Murray and David Aaron Baker.

Plimpton, whom some readers may recall as playing rebellious young daughters in 80s films, is still rebellious, but she is now a rebel with a just cause. She brings off the difficult task of being non-nonsense business woman, clever diplomat and strategist. She's beguiling without being too adorable to make you wonder how she got to be thirty without a man on the horizon. Her reddish-blonde hair is pulled back in a neat bun, and the determination evident in the firm set of her chin is hilariously borne out when her sister's lawyer beau, Albert Prosser (Darren Pettie), comes calling and finds bamboozled into walking out with a pair of boots he had no intention of buying. All in all, Maggie is smart, bossy and self-confident. When her sister Vickey complains "I don't see why you always get your way" she comes back with a matter-of-fact "just a habit". Though brusque, Plimpton's Maggie is not a termagant and you don't need glasses to spot the romantic heart beating beneath the prim exterior.

Brian Murray, one of those rare actors who never seems to find himself between jobs, may not share this comical Lear's aptitude for by-passing work for gossip and drink, but he's got the man down pat. He blusters ("I'm Hobson— I'm British middle class and proud of it "), he lands insults with exquisite timing (as when he tells his youngest daughter "you're pretty but you like lie a gas meter"), and he schemes to marry off his younger and less useful daughters but to hold onto the useful Maggie. Upon being told that custom dictates that a father make a settlement on a son-in-law, he backs off faster than you can untie a boot lace, declaring that "once you get one wed, then you go through the lot like measles." When finally faced with the end of his little fiefdom and forced to make a choice that's not a choice, his bombast simply collapses. I can't say that this ingratiating villain represents Murray's best ever performance. The man doesn't know how to give anything less than his best.

David Aaron Baker radiates the same sort of dumb charm he did as the younger of the Curry brothers in the last revival of The Rainmaker. However, Willie Mossop is a more developed and engaging character and Baker taps into all his comic possibilities — from the moment he emerges from the shop's cellar where he cobbles away without any great expectations to his surprising final appearance.

While Plimpton, Murray and Baker, and especially Plimpton, are the play's linchpins, Mr. Warren has elicited excellent work from the full ensemble. There are some especially fine cameos from Aedin Moloney as Willie's would-be wife Ada Figgins and from Peter Maloney as the doctor who must read Hobson the riot act about the serious state of his health .

Derek McLane's set accommodates three scene changes. Aptly lit by Kenneth Posner, the boot shop's bright and open look is in direct contrast to the confined and restricted lives under the reign of Hobson. By contrast, the dark basement apartment where Maggie and Willie set up house and shopkeeping is figuratively lit with promise of a happier future. Laura Bauer's late 1890s costumes add to the evening's visual pleasures.

Hobson's Choice, while often revived in England, is a rare treat in this country. It is the best kind of escapist fare — a play that's fun to watch, with dialogue that crackles enough to hide the cracks of age, and a feather light plot with just enough subtext to keep keep it from being too frothy.

Some Background on the Play's Long History
  • Harold Brighouse (1882-1955) was part of the so-called Manchester School of Stanley Houghton. He was a prolific playwright, with over fifty one-act plays to his credit, many of them about labor themes. However, it is on Hobson's Choice, which has been regularly revived since its 1915 debut, that his reputation rests.'
  • In Autumn 1998, the Royal National Theatre in London began a year long Platforms project charting the progress of drama through the twentieth century, as represented by 100 plays. Hobson's Choice is on that list for the year 1916.
  • Hobson's Choice was adapted for the screen three times. The most famous version in 1954 starred Charles Laughton and John Mills as Hobson and Mossop. Brenda DeBanzi had to settle for an "also with" credit— either because of the Hollywood star system or as an example of Hollywood following in Hobson's Macho footsteps. (For a color reproduction of the film's poster, see our recent review of two Harry Hirshfeld books). The Atlantic Theater, known for its ensemble work, simply lists all the actors in alphabetical order. A 1983 TV film was set in New Orleans and featured Richard Thomas, Sharon Gless, and Jack Warden.
  • The play was also made into a musical, Walking Happy, which ran at the Lunt-Fontaine during the 1966-67 season. Even music by James Van Heusen, lyrics by Sammy Cahn and a book by Roger O. Hirson and Ketti Frings, couldn't prevent it from fading into obscurity after just 161 performance. A more successful musical endeavor was a ballet by the Sadler's Wells Royal Ballet in 1989.


Written by Harold Brigthouse
Directed by David Warren
Cast: Brian Murray(Henry Horatio Hobson), Maggie Plimpton (Maggie Hobson) and David Aaron Baker (Willie Mossop); also Katie Carr (Vickey Hobson), Jim Frangione (Tubby Wadlow), Austin Lysy (Freddie Beenstock)), Aedin Moloney (Ada Figgins), Peter Maloney (Doctor MacFarlane), Darren Pettie (Albert Prosser), Judith Roberts (Mrs. Hepworth). Amy Wilson (Alice Hobson), Christopher Wynkoop (Jim Heeler)
Set Design: Derek McLane
Costume Design: Laura Bauer
Lighting Design: Kenneth Posner
Original Music & Sound: Fitz Patton
Running Time: 2 hours and 20 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission
Atlantic Theater, 336 W. 20th St. (8/9th Aves) 239-6200web site Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on 1/03/02 press preview
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