For all that it echoes King Lear at points and ultimately has its heart in the right place, Hobson's Choice cannot but come over today as a slice of patronising escapism. The play possessed a reassuring distance from the first; Harold Brighouse set it not in the Lancashire of the time of its composition (1914-15) but three decades earlier – recognisably similar, yet far enough removed to be seen as no more than an entertainment. This gap of detachment has widened until these days the Salford of Henry Horatio Hobson seems no more real than Brigadoon.
Jack Smethurst is best remembered for his role in the 1970s television sitcom Love Thy Neighbour, the racist humour of which would give nightmares to a modern-day media student. His rumbling, bewhiskered Hobson is more or less an ancestor of that character, but the familiarity of seeing Smethurst in such a part is a mixed blessing; when Hobson is speaking bluntly everything is comically fine and dandy, but when he moves into a more verbose, pompous vein, Smethurst seems to come adrift from the words, sounding as if he is merely reciting rather than truly vexed.
Partly for this reason, Stuart Burge's production appears to concentrate more heavily upon the other two points of the central triangle, Hobson's daughter Maggie and her hapless, commandeered husband Willie Mossop. Katharine Rogers makes Maggie firm without turning her into a termagant; there is more than just play-acting to her later outward deference towards her husband. Nor, in Stefan Escreet's performance, is Willie simply the spineless creature of the woman who plucks him from Hobson's cellar workshop to set him up in his own cobbling business on the other side of Tim Reed's towering stage revolve; Willie may be the junior partner in the marriage, but he does know his own mind, unable though he may be to act upon it. However, Willie's final transformation – for all that it is little more than a brave front – is a shade too comprehensive; the man who stands up to Hobson is another person entirely from the one who first popped his head out of the trapdoor barely two hours earlier.
The rest of the production runs on rails. Hobson's two younger daughters indulge in two-dimensional "uppishness", whilst their respective suitors are denied even so much opportunity; the Scottish doctor who diagnoses Henry Horatio's alcoholism gets on, does his job and gets off again. It all works perfectly well by its own lights, but the play's enduring popularity can surely only be explained in terms of our desire to congratulate ourselves that we have never been as shallow as most of the characters.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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