First performed in 1916, Hobson’s Choice, written by Harold Brighouse, was originally set in in Salford in 1880. It was deemed to be a seminal play, and has been repeatedly revived, adapted for film several times, was a modern American drama, and has been performed as a Broadway musical.
Now it’s time to visit Canterbury’s The Malthouse Theatre. This fresh new production from Matthew Townshend Productions moves forward in time to the year 1958, and the scene is set with period decoration and includes songs written and produced exclusively for the production by upcoming musicians Ben Goble with JS and the Lockerbillies.
The classic comic love story is the tale of a Salford cobbler with three unruly daughters that owes more than a little to King Lear and Cinderella. The daughters work in the shop unpaid, whilst Hobson (John D Collins) spends his time drinking with the fellow members of the masons at the Moonrakers pub. It’s music that keeps the girls inspired, but soon forthright and spiky eldest daughter Maggie (Becky Hoyle) has had enough and breaks free. The younger sisters Vickey (Chloe Carrington) and Alice (Marie Kemp) have the opportunity to make their own escape – but family ties and expectations run deep.
Debts, relationships, family feuds and success are all explored in this pacy and vibrant adaptation that remains faithful to the original script even as it updates it. Marriage is the only option – a Hobson’s choice, meaning no choice at all – for these women, modern as they are. Cutting through generations, it shows that in family life, some stories never get old – and some things never change.
It’s interesting to see a play moved to a more modern period, but one that still isn’t contemporary to the audience. Layers of historical interpretation build up, and its clear how relevant the themes are to whatever time period they are played in. Rebellion of young generation against parental expectations, gender norms and restrictions, and class issues make it as universal and relevant as when first produced in wartime London in 1916. Austerity is a flavour from the 1880s through to 1950s and today.
The sense that change is coming is well articulated, with the sisters believing that dance and music and rock’n’roll is the sign of something new. Interspersing each scene with some rock’n’roll dancing is great fun, and keeps the energy up. Their choices may be limited, but the delivery of this play means that the audience never feel constricted or bored.
It’s a brilliant show, with just the right mix of entertainment and thought provoking exploration.
The Malthouse Theatre, based at King’s School, opened earlier this year, after a 28 million scheme converting the Victorian-built Malthouse into a performance and rehearsal space. It’s a great space, with the audience at the level of the stage, so feeling very much ‘in the action.’