Connecting professional and amateur theatre in Newbury, West Berkshire and beyond

Watermill - Hobson's Choice

17th May to 8th July 2006.

From The Stage.

Superb characterisations and entertaining direction draw the best comedy values from this Lancastrian drama in which playwright Harold Brighouse afforded a close study not only of class in the late 19th-century but also of the prolific shoe-making trade which firmly sets the play in its very specific industrial era.

There is no slow build to the comedy elements in this production testing the actors’ ability to set their characters from very early on; a challenge which is met by the entire cast with aplomb. The lines are delivered in a tempered, natural fashion so that the humour comes through almost as a surprise just moments in the play.

Of course the proverbial Hobson’s Choice (the fact that there is no choice at all) is reflected in various aspects of the plot and all of these choices are strengthened by Anna-Jane Casey as the indomitable Maggie and John Branwell as the bullish Henry Hobson. Paul Kemp gives an enjoyable and laughable solemnity to his role as William Mossop with Jack McKenzie making a brief yet powerful appearance as Dr MacFarlane. Rosalie Craig and Natalie Casey are the other two Hobson sisters, Alice and Vicky, with Paul Foster as Albert Prosser, Marianne Morley as Mrs Hepworth, Robert Vahey as Tubby Wadlow, Robert Benfield as Jim Heeler, Suzanne Toase as Ada Figgins and Mark Bixter as Fred Beenstock.

Jessica Curtis’s set provides a quirky access to the cellar workshop threading additional visual comedy through Act One and Two carrying through the theme using different aspects of the design into the remaining scenes.

For any theatregoer in the small village of Bagnor, near Newbury, it is most certainly Hobson’s Choice when it comes to choosing a play to see as there is no alternative in the very immediate vicinity. But in this case, Hobson’s Choice is a very good choice indeed.

From The Times.

Four stars
When playwrights want to write about sisters they almost always use three of them. Three brothers for a fairytale, three sisters for the stage. Harold Brighouse followed this pattern for his famous family drama, written in 1915, set in 1880 and now handsomely revived with a lovely cast in a space so cosy that we could be peering through the shop windows of Hobson’s, bootmakers of Salford, where the struggle between the generations first erupts.

Custom further requires two of these sisters (or brothers) to be a moral disappointment when tested, usually by being asked to look after their ageing father, here in the shape of Henry Hobson. So while Vickey Hobson marries a solicitor and Alice a merchant, and both are set to go up in the world, we know they will not become as happy as Maggie with her Willie Mossop.

Unusually, Maggie is the eldest of the three, and her careful attention to the books has nearly as much to do with the success of the business as Willie’s bootmaking genius. He is shy, cowed and, in Paul Kemp’s comically touching performance, scarcely able to raise his voice above a protesting mumble, so that when Anna-Jane Casey’s Maggie — something of a steamroller in personal relationships — recognises that her future wellbeing lies with him, Kemp stands miserably in front of her. You can see he longs to be anywhere else, but his monotone mumbles hint that here is someone whose opposition may sound faintly but will not go unheard.

This does not mean that any protests will be heeded, and what he has to learn is that Maggie’s whirlwind courtship is the best thing to come his way. Kemp and Casey make their closing scene delicately moving, and in her performance we can see her organising vigour accompanying a regard for him that is tender despite the thick layers of bossiness.

This is what old Hobson would call “uppishness” and a mark of his daughters’ shocking disrespect. “I will be heeded!” John Branwell’s Hobson asserts. The comic deflations come so inevitably that the phrase “collapse of stout party” could have been penned with him in mind.

In truth, the author’s characterisations outside the main pair are seldom subtle, but the warmth of the writing and attractive performances in Timothy Sheader’s swift-moving production hold one eager for the happy outcome.

JEREMY KINGSTON

From the Newbury Weekly News.

Tipped for the top

Tim Sheader's Hobson's Choice is a winner at The Watermill

Hobson's Choice, at The Watermill, until July 8

Anyone who gives Hobson's Choice a miss will deprive themselves of what an audience member during last Friday's talkback accurately described as 'one of the best plays I've seen'.

The thesaurus and I have run out of superlatives to describe the extraordinarily good piece of theatre which is The Watermill's current production.

Harold Brighouse's story of bootshop owner Henry Hobson (John Bran well), and his three daughters whom 'providence has decreed will lack a mother's hand' is northern comedy at its best.

Eldest daughter Maggie (Anna-Jane Casey) rules the shop and her two young sisters Alice (Rosalie Craig) and Vickey (Natalie Casey), but when he father says he regards Maggie as "30 and shelved", she decides that enough is enough and persuades the shop's best bootmaker, the reluctant William Mossop (Paul Kemp) to marry her and set up a rival establishment. Her brains and Will's hands bring great success and eventually an impoverished Henry has to plead with the couple to agree to a partnership.

Set designer Jessica Curtis ingeniously turns the stage into Victorian bootshops with details like the 'windows' showing the legs of passers-by in the Mossop cellar workshop and the illusion of a lower floor in the Hobson shop capturing the atmosphere so exactly you can almost sniff the leather.

Director Tim Sheader has chosen an outstanding cast, with John Branwell superb as the bumbling, loud-mouthed Hobson and Anna-Jane Casey simply magnificent in gesture and word as the ramrod-straight no-nonsense Maggie who nevertheless has a great tenderness for her William.

Paul Kemp, as the simple lad dragooned into marriage cleverly progresses from grubby bootmaker to assured bootshop owner in a performance of high quality

In many plays there are slow patches during which the audience surreptitiously look at their watches. This is not one of them. I know that I speak for all of Friday's audience when I say we could happily have sat and watched the whole thing through again.

The laughs never stop right up to the final "Ee bah gum!" This is a choice everyone who sees it will be glad they made.

CAROLINE FRANKLIN

From the Telegraph.

A triumph over shadows

The Watermill Theatre is on a roll. Its brilliant production of Sweeney Todd has been nominated for a fistful of Tony awards in New York, while Edward Hall's all-male Taming of the Shrew premières in Newbury this autumn before transferring to the Old Vic. What's more, this new production of Hobson's Choice is an absolute joy.

But as I wandered round the gardens, it was impossible to shrug off a feeling of melancholy. The woman who turned this small and idyllic venue into one of Britain's major theatrical players, Jill Fraser, died in February, just as she and her husband, James Sargant were planning their retirement.

Sargant is now keeping the show on the road with the productions Jill had already programmed until a new boss is appointed. An appeal to secure the theatre's future is almost halfway towards its £3 million target. The Watermill is in safe hands, but it doesn't feel quite the same without Jill.

Still, it's impossible to remain gloomy during Timothy Sheader's delightfully warm, funny and touching production of Hobson's Choice. Harold Brighouse's Lancashire comedy was written during the early years of the Great War, but it is set in the Salford of the 1880s.

"Only by exceptional merit can a regional play overcome London's Mayfair prejudice," Brighouse complained, but this "Manchester School" drama is now deservedly a national treasure.

Sheader's production, with ingenious and atmospheric period designs by Jessica Curtis, captures all the play's strengths with the help of a highly cherishable ensemble cast.

What struck me is how the comedy emerges from such an unexpectedly harsh view of humanity. Hobson, the tyrannical Salford Lear whose kingdom is his shoe shop, treats his three unmarried daughters and his staff with contempt as he indulges a destructive alcoholic thirst.

The two younger daughters also emerge as unpleasantly selfish shallow characters, and it is only Maggie, apparently condemned to spinsterhood, who reveals both generosity and pluck as she seizes her one chance of happiness by marrying lowly boot-maker Willie Mossop.

Anna-Jane Casey and Paul Kemp make an irresistible double-act in this relationship, which could have inspired all those saucy seaside postcards in which big strong northern women dominate feeble men.

Casey's Maggie would be a terror if it weren't for the sudden flashes of tenderness and smiling mischief she reveals as she twists Mossop to her ferocious will, leaving him absolutely no choice but to marry her.

Paul Kemp is pathetically and hilariously wimpish at first, and the scene in which he prepares for the unknown terrors of the marriage bed is a small masterpiece of silent comedy. But, in the course of the play, he discovers confidence, and when the pair finally kiss as loving equals I was moved to tears.

John Branwell is in vintage form as Hobson, a dead ringer for John Prescott apart from his moustache and with a bullying complacency and incompetence that strike a familiar chord. Yet, by the end, you somehow feel almost sorry for the old monster.

CHARLES SPENCER

There are reviews in the Wiltshire Gazette and Herald ("a joy from beginning to end"), in WhatsOnStage ("faultless production ... managed to make me laugh and cry" Five stars) and in Rogues and Vagabonds ("a tight, well-rounded production").