It was 15 years ago that the Stamford Shakespeare Company decided to broaden its repertoire to include one non-Shakespeare play each season. Since then classic comedies, shows aimed at children, and feelgood productions have taken their place beside the works of the Bard.
This year’s offering is Hobson’s Choice, the well-constructed Lancashire comedy written by Harold Brighouse in 1915, but made specially memorable by the 1953 film which included an unforgettable performance by Charles Laughton. It’s good to report that in the Tolethorpe production Russell Watson makes a similarly larger-than-life impression as Henry Horatio Hobson. The owner of a Salford shoe shop, Henry is the elderly father of three daughters whom he attempts to cure of ‘uppish-ness.’ A bubble waiting to be burst, he eventually takes to drink and is dying of alcoholism by the beginning of Act 4.
In this well-cast production Catherine Mellor gives a commanding performance as his eldest daughter Maggie. Witheringly described by Henry as ‘a proper old maid,’ Maggie actually carries all before her. From the excellent opening scene where she displays her manipulative skills with a customer, to the final act where she achieves her ultimate goal of taking over and expanding her father’s business. But it’s Maggie’s decision to force the unwilling cobbler Willie Mossop into matrimony and self-belief that provides the substance of the play as well as most of the laughs.
As the bashful Willie, Colin Plant gives another outstanding performance, moving from a tongue-tied underling to a confident businessman. The gradual changes in Willie take place over the length of the play and are nicely judged and hilariously managed. Especially perhaps the scene where Willie realises the conjugal implications of getting married to Maggie. By the closing scene they have become a formidable couple able to get their own way, even over the scheming Hobson.
The very strong trio of actors is well-supported by the rest of the company, almost all of them coping effectively with the Northern accents and idioms which are an integral part of the play, by gum!
As Henry’s two younger daughters Alice and Vickey, Bex Key and Hattie Stockley-Cullimore provide just the right mixture of rebelliousness and sulky obedience. But they too get their own way in the end, marrying the husbands of their choice and, incidentally, looking lovely in their colourful Victorian dresses. Complete with the bustles of which Henry so strongly disapproves.
Julia Bullimore as Mrs Hepworth also contributes a characterful cameo, while the excellent sets revolve smoothly in front of a very rural looking Salford.
Review: Joe Conway