Written in 1915, set in the late nineteenth century, Hobson’s Choice is now transposed to the 1960s. It works perfectly in its new setting, which says a lot about many of the themes and issues it examines. Henry Horatio Hobson is the owner of a successful boot shop, and on the brink of alcoholism. Leaving his three daughters to run the shop he spends his days in the pub, but doesn’t see fit to pay them for their labours.
His eldest, Maggie, is thirty, the younger two in their twenties, and yet with the domineering way in which he treats them you’d be forgiven for thinking them much younger. He discounts Maggie from his considerations of finding husbands for his daughters, but Alice and Vickey are still young enough for childbearing (although this thought process is short lived when he realizes the expense he would be put to).
Maggie is pushy and capable and strong in her conviction that she isn’t too old to marry, has the right to choose for herself, and may yet escape her father’s shop. She decides she’ll marry Willie Mossop, the endearingly timid bootmaker who works in their basement. He doesn’t have much choice in the matter. Although Maggie breaks the chains of convention and show she is intelligent and independent she is markedly less feminine than her sisters and is exaggerated in her bossiness. Harold Brighouse was perhaps making a judgement on the type of women who could take control of their own lives, or making a point about how society perceives women who are proactive and not content with their role of mere vessels for childbearing.
Vickey and Alice are concerned mostly with making themselves look pretty and living in fine surroundings. They never accept Willie for his lower social standing and judge Maggie for the shabby home she’s willing to live in. They are selfish and ungrateful, quickly forgetting that it was Maggie who engineered it so that they could marry their chosen men. When their father descends deeper in to alcoholism and needs someone to look after him they shun the responsibility. They are fairly shallow and their characters are sparsely drawn. Hobson, Maggie, and Willie are well-drawn enough for this not to matter.
Mark Benton is brilliant as Hobson with all the confidence and harshness needed at the start of the play through to the broken man we see at the end. There’s great chemistry between Maggie (Jodie McNee) and Willie (Karl Davies) alternating between scenes that had us all laughing to genuinely touching moments. This is an excellent, humorous production dealing with the themes of gender equality, class tensions, and family loyalty which is all the more powerful for its sense of transgressing time. The cast is fantastic, and were utterly unfazed when parts of the set fell apart, incorporating it in to the dialogue, and leaving the audience enrapt.
Hobson’s Choice is playing at the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre until 12th July.