Hobson’s Choice is a play ahead of its time

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Review by Hannah Richardson

A selfish, penny pinching and ungracious father who employs his three grown daughters as unpaid labour in his Salford cobblers shop then berates them for their ‘uppishness’ is the starting point for Hobsons Choice, by Harold Brighouse, on stage at MK Theatre until Saturday.

And it’s well worth a watch, if you enjoy a good old-fashioned bit of theatre.

Martin Shaw is the show’s big-name actor, starring as the eponymous patriarch Hobson.

But the play really belongs to the women, and particularly to the eldest daughter Maggie, played by Naomi Frederick, who hatches a plan to escape spinsterhood and her father’s clutches.

Clever Maggie, written off by her father as an old maid (because he knows the business can’t manage without her) has devised a scheme to marry her father’s gormless, unappreciated but highly talented young bootmaker Willie Mossop and set up in business together.

Along the way, she also plans to help her sisters marry the men of their choice, despite the fact that their mean father refuses to countenance paying out ‘marriage portions’.

Frederick’s Maggie is superbly underplayed. Strong, determined and resolute, but slight and slender, she never allows the character to swerve into carictature.

When she tells the reluctant Willie, in her matter-of-fact way, that she has love enough for both of them, it’s a truly poignant moment of theatre.

Bryan Dick also gives a first rate performance as Willie - at first terrified by Maggie’s proposal, but gradually bracing himself to accept his fate, and in the process growing into more of a man.

The relationship between the pair of them is charmingly portrayed, from slapstick comedy as Maggie hoiks the terrified Willie off to bed on their wedding night, to a deep affection borne out of respect by the time we see the ‘new improved’ Willie in the final act.

The set design is superbly nostaligic and the highly enjoyable play rattles along at a spanking pace, with several enjoyable cameo roles along the way – notably Joanna McCallum as high-class customer Mrs Hepworth.

Earlier, I called it a good old-fashioned piece of theatre.

But it’s astonishing to realise that this play was first premiered in 1915, long before women got the vote. So for its time it’s an amazing blow for women’s equality.

At a time when women were still very much second-class citizens, Harold Brighouse’s play celebrated female ingenuity, resourcefulness and downright determination.

Box office: 0844 871 7652 or www.atgtickets.com/miltonkeynes