Looking down at the set of Henry Horatio Hobson’s boot-making shop for Stamford Shakespeare Company’s production Hobson’s Choice, one immediately appreciates the advantages open-air theatre offers; space. Space where stage designers can think big, and let their imaginations run free. Hobson's shop is so well realised, I take a closer look, and notice with surprise and wonder, a street behind the shop, with ‘The Moonrakers’ pub and part of an adjoining building, bricks suitably blackened by Salford’s industrial air.
The boot-making shop is one section of a three-part stage revolve, another turn takes us into Willie Mossop’s cellar, from which newlyweds Willie and Maggie run their blossoming boot-making business. A door hints at a bedroom. A third revolve of the stage and we’re in Hobson’s parlour complete with candlesticks and pot dogs. It is all extremely effective.
Harold Brighouse set his play in 1880s Salford, around the time of his own birth in nearby Eccles. The story tells of widowed Victorian patriarch, Henry Horatio Hobson, and his three adult daughters, Vickey, Alice and Maggie. Henry spends much time in ‘The Moonrakers’ with pal Jim Heeler, leaving the running of the shop to his unpaid daughters, especially Maggie; bright as a button and with a good business head.
Accusing them of growing bumptious, uppish and, horror of horror, wearing bustles, he’s in a good mind to marry off Vickey and Alice. To Maggie’s question "If you’re dealing husbands round don’t I get one?" he replies "You’re a proper old maid, thirty and shelved." Anyway, he needs her in the shop. Changing his mind about marrying off his younger daughters after mention of settlements (dowries), their prospects look thin. Stung into action, Maggie uses her sharp brain to not only get settlements and husbands for her sisters, but one for herself, whether the 'chosen' Willie Mossop likes it or not! Also whether Ada Figgins, the girl he is tokened to, well played by Emma Parnell, likes it or not! "You wed her you’ll be an eighteen-shilling bootmaker all your life."
The actors’ lines, as the intro music fades, are a little hard to hear and the immediate start lacks impact, but soon, very soon, the play takes off. The cast of twelve have honed convincing Lancashire accents, and their body languages exude a Lancashire aura; facial movements, gestures. The comic timing of lines is perfect. "Get one wedding in a family and it runs through the lot like measles." All inhabit and bring their characters to life very well.
The play centres on Maggie and Willie who are both excellently played. Catherine Mellor is sublime, as is Colin Plant, especially when shy Willie performs a brilliantly memorable silent preparation for bed on his wedding night. Russell Watson as Henry Hobson, middle class and proud of it, is also excellent. His scene in the parlour when he decides he is dying is full of pathos and humour. When his pal, Jim (nicely done by Peter Lockett) tells him he’s never been ill in his life, he replies "I’ve been saving it up."
Alice and Vickey Hobson, played by Bex Key and Hattie Stockley-Cullimore are feather-brained, petulant, and not a little grasping. Their counterparts-in-love, Albert Prosser (Peter Unwin) and Fred Beenstock (Eron Rendell) are putty in clever Maggie’s hands. Neither couples seem madly in love, but the men have good prospects. A very good reason for a Victorian marriage!
Julia Bullimore's well-heeled Mrs Hepworth has a lovely stage presence, with her arrival to praise Willie for his wonderful boot-making skills setting the whole story in motion. This role might be compared with Cinderella's fairy godmother and the play has also been loosely likened to it, as well as King Lear of course.
Steve Cunningham's loyal bootmaker, Tubby Wadlow (as well as latterly the housekeeper), and Kevin McCabe's strict-but-kindly Scottish Doctor MacFarlane, are also both very well drawn.
Costumes and props are marvelously authentic to the period and the creative/backstage crew have produced a wonderful little world. I noticed that Russell Watson, in addition to playing Henry Horatio Hobson, designed the set, with realisation by Nick Carlton, and revolve by Dannie Carlton.
The play could have been interpreted with all the gritty realism of the industrial north of a Victorian patriarch keeping his family and workers suppressed and short of money; of the struggle by women for control of their own finances, and independence. But while the iniquities of women and workers kept under the thumb are in the lines, and are thought provoking, the play is a comedy and has been directed by Diane Watson as such.
From heel to toe it is a well-polished and professionally (although the company is of amateur status) produced product, with plenty of soul!