Nice one, Roy. Across the West End secret toasts are being drunk to the England supremo for his exquisitely crafted belly flop in Brazil. A decent run by our boys in the World Cup has the potential to put a nasty dent in the box-office takings. As a welcome home present the lads deserve free tickets to Hobson’s Choice at the Open Air Theatre. The play is one of those dependable classics that directors don’t entirely trust. Few can resist the temptation to give it a tweak or stick it in a time machine. The storyline has the simplicity and boldness of a fairy tale. Hobson, a despotic widower, forces his three daughters to toil in his shoe shop for no wages. His eldest girl, Maggie, persuades a spineless underling, Willie Mossop, to marry her. She turns Willie into a successful entrepreneur and they take over the shoe business while Hobson sinks into boozy dereliction.
Harold Brighouse wrote the play in 1915 and located it in Salford in the 1880s. The advantage of this arrangement is that the story feels like an act of prophecy foretelling the political revolts and national awakenings that brought Britain’s empire to a close. Nadia Fall’s enjoyable and stylish production is set in the 1960s. A few things seem off-kilter. The shop girls wear matching green skirts and tunics that make them look more like airline hostesses than penniless skivvies. And it seems highly improbable that all three would offer their bullying father 15 years of hard graft for no reward. Jodie McNee, as Maggie, is full of spiky cunning and she adds a subtle layer of predatory eroticism. Karl Davies passes the first test of a decent Willie: he’s very handsome, and this gives Maggie a powerful extra motive for marrying him. Davies is terrific to watch as the halfwitted Willie in the first act and he makes his evolution into a business wizard credible. He eventually gets the better of Maggie and she loves him all the more for it.
The moment when he orders her to ‘look sharp’ is one of the greatest turning points in the entire theatrical canon. And here, as ever, it lands with a huge emotional wallop. Hobson, played by Mark Benton, has unexpected reserves of tenderness and humour. Benton makes the beer-soaked boor oddly lovable, and even when he’s striking Willie Mossop with his leather belt he seems a cuddly sort of monster. And he spares us nothing on his journey from the rooftop to the gutter. He sheds his trousers and blunders around the stage with his belly swinging like a bell beneath his filthy old shirt. And he slumps in a chair with his meaty thighs exposed like two slabs of shark’s flesh. One of the show’s uncovenanted blessings is the music. At the opening of the play, Hobson comes rolling home from the pub belting out a Sinatra classic. ‘That’s life. That’s what all the people say/ You’re riding high in April, shot down in May.’ And Benton sings this better than Old Blue Eyes himself because the lyrics are suited to the character of a heroic outcast rather than a spic-and-span millionaire. Benton’s rich, soaring baritone is full of sweetness, anguish and yearning. Really it’s an amazing instrument. Someone should ask him to cut a blues album. He has the voice of a star.
Enduring Song is a mystery play that doesn’t want to be mysterious. Where are we? What’s going on? Actors in medieval sad-rags are swishing about and speaking great wodges of dry, earnest prose. The accents are English. So are the names. Matthew, Robert, George, Jennifer. After 20 minutes a chance reference to Amiens solves the riddle. We’re in France. A wedding is being planned. Women rush on and off, honking and gasping. Some are semi-hysterical. Some are completely hysterical. None is funny. The wedding takes place. Peasant girls with flowers in their hair skip around in circles, shrieking. Then something happens. The bishop arrives and orders the newly married Matthew to ditch his wife, and her high-decibel bridesmaids, and set off on a crusade. He agrees immediately. So would I. So would anyone. The play is already an hour old when the campaign begins but it feels as if it’s barely started.
Experience will teach the writer, Jesse Briton, to edit his work more efficiently. The actors are full of commitment to their craft but their mood of frantic gaiety never varies. And good theatre isn’t just about theatricality. Standing on stage and listening is hard to achieve if you feel obliged to signal, ‘look, everyone, I’m standing on stage, listening’. It’s clear that the cast love the script and the production. But watching someone else having a whale of a time is like being suffocated. I couldn’t wait to come up for air.
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