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Hobson's Choice - Chichester Festival Theatre

Hobson's Choice

Review by David Munro

Hobson’s Choice is a North Country comedy with universal appeal. It is in effect Cinderella or Pygmalion in reverse – the little man taken up by a strong woman for his skills who teaches him how to hold his own against the world.

Although Hobson is the eponymous main character in the play it is his daughter Maggie, a chip off the old block, who holds it together. In the current Chichester production she is faultlessly played by Carolyn Backhouse who makes her strong but tender, overbearing but human and above all a warm woman who in the end is genuinely fond of her protégée Willie Mossop. It is one of the most rewarding performances I have seen this year and on its own would make this a production worth seeing.

But she is not alone. Dylan Charles matches her as an outwardly gormless but ultimately worthwhile partner both in the character and on the stage. He shows from the outset that there is more to Willie than his craft and that in the bumpkin there is a man waiting to get out. The final curtain where he realises that he is master in his own world is breathtaking.

The director Jonathan Church has surrounded these two pivotal performances with a strong supporting cast. As Maggie’s downtrodden sisters Alice and Vicky, Katherine Kingsley and Annabel Scholey make the transition from shop girls to ladies of fashion effortlessly and amusingly. They are the Goneril and Regan to Maggie’s Cordelia as their refusal to look after their father when he is in extremis proves; again two lovely performances especially Katherine Kingsley who reminded me of that consummate American comedienne Charlotte Greenwood, and not unfavourably I might add.

As the sister’s suitors, and ultimate husbands, Albert and Freddy, Alex Waldmann and Philip Correia make their somewhat insignificant characters effective and likeable carrying off their solo scenes with style and panache.

Richard Kane as the old and faithful master craftsman who is left to look after his master when his daughters desert him, manages to shed the stereotypical aspect of the role and make him a warm and genuine character even though at the end one feels his future is somewhat uncertain; but that is the author’s fault not the actor.

And now we come to Hobson himself; the drunken, domineering father and shop owner who is brought low by his daughters’ desertion and the loss of his business to his former employee, Willie Mossop. It is a strong role with its echoes of Lear and is, in the hands of a master comedian, foolproof (vide Charles Laughton in the film). John Savident, I felt, was still feeling his way into the role.

In the last act as the broken tyrant he was moving and his outburst of impotent rage was effective but it was not so moving as it might have been had his earlier scenes as the domineering tyrant been more powerful. One got the impression that he was trying to disassociate himself from his TV persona of Fred Elliott (a character cast in the Hobson mould) and in so doing had lost the arrogance and insensibility demanded of the character. It may be as the run continues he will find himself in the character, but at the moment, although it is by no means a bad performance it is an unsatisfying one.

A word too must be said for Simon Higlett’s towering and realistic period sets which dominated the open stage that revolved and changed with the maximum effect. In particular, the basement “Home” of the newly married Mossops gave one the eerie feeling of being in a Manchester slum basement with stairs which stretched up to the flies, allowing an effective entrance for John Savident when he comes to disrupt the bridal feast with his own problems.

The final word must be for Jonathan Church’s atmospheric and highly competent direction. Although blessed with a fine cast he made the most of them, showcasing their talents and extracting every ounce of humour, drama and pathos from Harold Brighouse’s script. The result – a first rate evening’s entertainment and a revival which gave every impression of being a new and worthwhile play. You can’t argue – it’s Hobson’s choice – you have to see it .

Hobson’s Choice by Harold Brighouse.
Music by Mathew Scott.
Directed by Jonathan Church.
Designer – Simon Higlett.
Lighting – Mark Jonathan.
Sound – Mike Keniger.
Fight Director – Michael Ranson.

Cast: John Savident, Carolyn Backhouse, Dyland Charles, Katherine Kingsley, Annabel Scholey, Alex Waldmann, Judith Paris, Richard Kane, John Branwell, Lizzie Brinkler, Philip Correia and Alistair Findlay.

Chichester Festival Theatre, Oaklands Park, Chichester, West Sussex, PO19 6AP.

In Repertory until September 1, 2007.

Evenings – 7.30pm.
Matinees – Wednesday and Saturday at 2pm.

Box Office: 01234 781312.