When I heard that the Young Vic was planning to do radical things to Hobson’s Choice I wasn’t happy. My only previous contact with the play had been the wonderful David Lean film version in 1953. I’m very loyal to that straight retelling of the stage play, which has a magnificent central performance by Charles Laughton as the grotesque patriarch Henry Horatio Hobson.
The play was originally written by Harold Brighouse in 1916, apparently inspired by the sight of lines of servicemen on their way to be slaughtered on the battlefields of France. A shocked Brighouse wanted to write a play where convention was overturned and people with no choice – Hobson’s Choice – took control over their own lives.
The original play is set in turn of the century Salford in the successful boot shop owned by the boozy and pompous Hobson. The woefully oppressed but talented Willie Mossop makes boots people want to buy and Hobson’s eldest daughter Maggie does everything else. Hobson, busy drinking away the profits, is confident that things will continue like this for ever. Maggie has other ideas and sets about changing her – and Willie’s – life completely. To do so she has to overturn every convention and obligation that Edwardian society expected from a woman and it makes for a great play.
The version by Tanika Gupta updates the story to the Asian community in modern day Salford. Harry Hobson becomes Hari Hobson, owner of a tailor’s shop that specialises in exquisite saris. Maggie becomes Durga (the eldest of his three daughters) and Willie becomes Ali Mossop – the object and subject of Durga’s plans of transformation. I shouldn’t have worried. The play works splendidly in its new environment. The performances are outstanding, the sets fantastic and the whole production brims with creativity and dynamism.
It could be argued that the message of the play is that anyone can ‘make it’ through hard work, thrift and education. Yet I think that is only one interpretation. This is a play about the possibilities of transformation and change, even as the original play has been transformed. The appearance of a sexy and confident Ali in the final act, light years from the timid and exploited mouse earlier in the play, has everyone cheering and is the key to the play for Tanika Gupta: ‘For me the most life affirming element of Hobson’s Choice is the journey of Ali Mossop. He displays the inherent potential of all human beings to transcend their origins, condition and position in society.’
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