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HOBSON’S CHOICE – West End

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★★★
Vaudeville Theatre, London – until 10 September 2016

THE FIRST MAGGIE…

A hairdo can be eloquent. When Bryan Dick as Willie Mossop first emerges quaking with humility from a trapdoor under old Hobson’s shop, above a flapping leather apron and ragged shirt his dishevelled hair sports the nerdiest of centre partings – borderline imbecile indeed, with sad flapping black locks either side. But the redoubtable Maggie, sick of paternal domination, hoicks him out of servitude, marries him by sheer force of character, (“I’m engaged to Ada Figgins!” “Then you’ll get loose of her!”), channels his talent into a rival business, and by the closing scene gormless Willie confronts the drunken old tyrant Hobson in a smart business suit and – crucially – a neatly Brylcreemed side parting.

It’s a nice detail, and Bryan Dick as Willie steals the show with his moments of terror at Maggie’s resolute advances -“I’ve got my work cut out, but you’ve the makings of a man about you!”. One cannot help thinking fondly of Bernard Levin’s immortal description during the late Cecil Parkinson’s crisis with another Maggie – “He seems to follow the principle of promising to share his life with whichever lady has most recently spoken sharply to him”. Naomi Frederick’s Maggie, brilliantly deadpan in her commanding ways, deals superbly with his very funny wedding-night jitters: I do like a woman with the resolution to haul her diminutive groom to bed by the ear.

So there are great delights in Jonathan Church’s revival of Harold Brighouse’s 1916 play: last time it was in London, Nadia Fall updated it to another time of social change and womanly revolution, the 1960s, but Church keeps it resolutely in Victorian period, when fine boots were a pound , clogs a few pence and censorious fathers thought a bustle indecently provocative (“a lump added to nature”). There’s a marvellously evocative set by Simon Higlett (particularly the Salford cellar where Maggie and Willie set up business).

And of course the latest return of the septuagenarian Martin Shaw to the stage is a delight, especially as he storms around in a tornado of outrage and whiskers in the second act when his dissolution has fully set in. He is slightly less convincing – too amusingly lovable – in the first act, and his daughters seem more exasperated than afraid of him; so that when he threatens Willie with his belt, it doesn’t ring quite true. But the second Act’s drunkenly semi-comic Lear rings truer, as do his Goneril and Regan (Florence Hall and Gabrielle Dempsey) when they refuse to move in and look after him, and there a notable, understatedly powerful presence (equivalent I suppose of Lear’s Fool) in David Shaw-Parker as Tubby the clogmaker,

 

 
But as ever, it is Maggie who holds the stage, whether dominating her quaking groom or, oddly touchingly, insisting that the rest of the family respect him.
It remains an entertaining evening, a period piece and honourable in the WW1 centenary, reminding us that it was written in a time of social turbulence and female rising as well as carnage and heroism. Though set in the 1880s, its spirit is fiercely, hintingly Edwardian: Brighouse knew what he was doing.

 

 
Though of course what he was mainly doing was comedy, in a direct line from Shakespeare’s Shrew and Much Ado. It shows its age, and might have benefited from a trim in the Priestleyesque wordiness of the second act; but Maggie Mossop – née Hobson – remains one of the English stage’s great characters, and it was good to see her back.
box office 0330 333 4814 to 10 Sept
rating three

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Libby Purves
Libby Purves was theatre critic for The Times from 2010 to 2013. Determined to continue her theatre commentary after losing that job, she set up her own site www.theatrecat.com in October 2013. She personally reviews all major London openings, usually with on-the-night publication, and also gives voice to a new generation of critics with occasional guest 'theatrekittens'. In addition to her theatre writing and myriad other credits, Libby has been a presenter on BBC Radio 4’s Midweek for over 30 years. She is also the author of a dozen novels, and numerous non-fiction titles. In 1999, Libby was appointed an OBE for services to journalism.
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Libby Purves on RssLibby Purves on Twitter
Libby Purves
Libby Purves was theatre critic for The Times from 2010 to 2013. Determined to continue her theatre commentary after losing that job, she set up her own site www.theatrecat.com in October 2013. She personally reviews all major London openings, usually with on-the-night publication, and also gives voice to a new generation of critics with occasional guest 'theatrekittens'. In addition to her theatre writing and myriad other credits, Libby has been a presenter on BBC Radio 4’s Midweek for over 30 years. She is also the author of a dozen novels, and numerous non-fiction titles. In 1999, Libby was appointed an OBE for services to journalism.

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