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A CurtainUp London London Review
Hobson's Choice

"I'll choose a pair of husbands for you . . . .you're not fit to choose dresses." — Henry Horatio Hobson
Hobson's Choice
Karl Davies as Willie Mossop and Jodie McNee as Maggie Hobson (Photo: Johan Persson)
Director Nadia Fall takes Harold Brighouse's Lancashire comedy Hobson's Choice set in the 1880s and transposes it to the 1960s. It centres on the bombastic widower Henry Hobson (Mark Benton) who has three daughter of marriageable age. All of whom work for him, for their keep only, in his shoe and boot shop where under the retail shop, workmen turn out shoes and boots. His eldest daughter Maggie (Jodie McNee), who is over 30, Hobson considers to be"on the shelf", in other words she will not receive any offers of marriage.

When rich customer Mrs Hepworth (Joanna David) visits the shop to praise boot maker Willie Mossop's (Karl Davies) exceptional skill, he comes to Maggie's attention. With Maggie's business skills (she has long been running the accounts side of her father's shop) and Willie's craft, she sees an opportunity. Willie initially refuses Maggie until Maggie announces her plans to her father who assaults Willie, leathering him with his belt. This assault changes Willie's resolve and he agrees to marry her.

The artful Maggie arranges a frugal marriage and by living carefully builds up her and Willie's business and secures husbands for her sisters. Mild mannered Willie makes the transition from shy mouse to assertive, successful businessman and Hobson learns a lesson.

Hobson's Choice is a theatrical staple in the UK, finely written and with good parts. What is unusual about the Regent's Park's production, is its setting in the 1960s. This gives a lovely opening scene with the cast dancing the Madison and Hobson, apart, singing Sinatra's "That's Life". But I have my doubts that in the 1960s the girls would be as influenced by their father's wishes, that dowries were so important and that Hobson would be able to leather Willie without being arrested. However, given that small anachronistic niggle, this play from the grimy North gets a beautiful setting in Regent's Park, the red bricks of Hobson's shop building raggedly unfinished because there is no proscenium arch here to enclose the set. The shop has rows of polished gentlemen's shoes and ladies footwear and shelves of boxes with stairs down to the shoe makers' cellar.

There is no confusion about the rights and wrongs of these characters although we start to feel some pity for Hobson, victim of his chronic alcoholism who, like King Lear, sees his empire dissolve and ends up needing care. Jodie McNee is very strong as Maggie, a determined lass and admirable for the intelligent way in which she empowers her husband, transforming him from an illiterate craftsman to a successful businessman and a loving husband.

We warm to Karl Davies' Willie who has all the endearing qualities of an Andrex puppy and Mark Benton as Henry Horatio Hobson is so full of brilliant character and powerful stage presence, it's hard not to wish him well.

More 1960s music helps celebrations with Gerry and the Pacemakers' "How Do You Do It", and the Twist and gives the production a joyful upbeat. There is plenty of comedy in Brighouse's pleasing script.

Hobson's Choice makes for a charming evening at the Open Air in Regent's Park and is highly recommended. On a note, the expression Hobson's Choice means no choice at all and comes from a 16th century horse livery stables in Cambridge who told customers they could not choose but had to take the horse nearest the door.

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Hobson's Choice
Written by Harold Brighouse
Directed by Nadia Fall

Starring: Mark Benton, Jodie McNee, Karl Davies
With: Kate Adler, Robin Bowerman, Hannah Britland, Nadia Clifford, Joanna David, Bill Fellows, Jordan Metcalfe, Richard Syms, Leon Williams
Designer: Ben Stones
Movement: Jack Murphy
Lighting: Oliver Fenwick
Musical Director: Tom Deering
Sound: Avgoustos Psillas for Autograph
Running time: Two hours 20 minutes with an interval
Box Office: 0844 826 4242
Booking to 12th July 2014
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 18th June 2014 performance at The Regent's Park Open Air Theatre, London NW1 4NPX (Tube: Baker Street)
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