A witty and insightful exploration of status and ambition is how you could describe Harold Brighouse's comedy Hobson's Choice which is revived in its centenary year in a new production by Jonathan Church at the Vaudeville Theatre.
Set in 1880, the year the university of London first awarded degrees to women, the story centres on Henry Horatio Hobson, a self-made man, widowed Salford cobbler, skinflint and boozer who is a tyrant to his daughters and a law unto himself. When Maggie, his sharp-witted eldest daughter and the driving force behind the business defies her father's wishes to marry Willie Mossop, his own boot-maker, a battle of wills begins in which he stands to lose his customers, his girls and his pride, but ultimately it is Hobson's Choice.
Brighouse plausibly portrays the collision of obstinacy and common sense. But several of the characters are thinly drawn. Yet, although its context may seem rather dated, it still speaks wisely about the constraints of family life and makes a virtue of old-fashioned wholesomeness. Furthermore, although it creaks in places, this handsomely mounted production has a lot going for it.
Simon Higlett's design is richly detailed, from the wood panelled boot shop to Henry's cosy parlour complete with toby jugs and Disraeli portrait.
Martin Shaw sporting thick white whiskery sideburns, a ruddy complexion and Lancashire accent, gives a bombast and bluster to Hobson as he finds his daughters asserting their independence from his drunken bullying. But as this proud, but shambolic figure, who is a combination of Falstaff and Lear. Shaw delivers an overripe performance that would be more effective if it was toned down a degree.
Most impressive in a fine ensemble is Naomi Frederick who lends a practical, steely integrity to the eldest daughter, Maggie, supposedly on the shelf at the age of 30, as she makes a determined play for the shy, semi-literate Willie Mossop, played in an appropriate deadpan browbeaten manner by the excellent Bryon Dick.
This may be an imperfect production but it still manages to be both engaging and entertaining.
Runs at the Vaudeville Theatre until Saturday 10 September
Box office: 0330 333 4814Last modified: April 6, 2021