Hobson's Choice (2014)

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Poster by Neil Ballinger

by Harold Brighouse

Directed by Stephanie Urquhart

Performances: Tue 4th – Sat 8th March 2014, Bell Theatre


A Lancashire Comedy in 4 Acts




My wonderful Cast & Crew; anyone unlucky enough to be tapped for information/quizzed or ranted to about the show since August; The ridiculously generous Ian at Maddison's; Albert Matheson; Tim at Emmaus; Merrifieldsoflondon.co.uk; Dulwichcobblers.co.uk; Everyone at The Hope and The Park pubs; Michelle Thomson, Matthew Lyne and the bar staff; Jeanette Hoile and FoH team; Jess Osorio and Box Office; Membership volunteers; The Cast and Crew of By Jeeves as well as the Youth Group and their teachers; the power of Facebook; Alan Buckman; Kay George; Jocastaisfabby; Natalie Barker; Duncan Moore; Adam Crook, Chaz Doyle; Caroline Doyle; Naomi Liddle; Siobhan Campbell; David Hawkins; Bob Urquhart; Agent Fiona Thomas-Williams (DT); Daniel Kelly and finally Mr Graham Rice - yes you, thank you so much for well, everything.


From the SLT discussion board:

If you had asked me this morning what I thought of Harold Brighouse's 1915 Lancashire comedy, Hobson's Choice, my answer would have been less than positive. I would have remembered reading the text at school, and the two productions I'd seen, one student, one professional fringe, all adding up to a play about mostly unsympathetic Salfordians arguing with each other, and then arguing with a Scot. I 'd have accepted that it's of historical interest as an early representation of a realistic working class milieu on the stage, but I'd definitely have said it's one of those comedies that just isn't very funny.

Ask me again now. Go on. Ask me.

The production I saw tonight has totally transformed my opinion. Stephanie Urquhart and her cast have put together a show which is both touching and very funny, and where the comedy is deeply rooted in the depth and subtlety of the presentation of character on stage.

All the players deserve high praise. There are several familiar faces, all of whom carry off their roles with their usual aplomb. But the show belongs to two actors in particular, both new faces to SLT: Gemma-May Bowles, playing Hobson's determined eldest daughter Maggie, and Oliver Jones, playing the object of her (slightly predatory) affections Will Mossop.

Maggie is the driving force behind the action. Certainly she is a strong, decisive female figure, and can in other productions seem strident or harsh. But here Bowles imbues her with a warmth and intelligence which, while not softening her, makes her character completely three dimensional and rounded, so in the end we rejoice that her schemes succeed. In the narrative she is the lynchpin that holds the family together: in this production it is Bowles' performance that anchors and sustains the whole show.

The other half of the double-act at the heart of the play is Oliver Jones' Will Mossop. At his first appearance he seems a minor character, emerging from the depths of the workshop (somehow magically constructed beneath the Bell stage!). But as his relationship with Maggie emerges he becomes more and more confidently the centre of comedy in the play. Jones plays this brilliantly: his hesitations, his expressions, his physicality are all perfectly judged. He is funny, but not a caricature.

The chemistry between the two of them is outstanding. I think this more than anything else is what makes this such a good production

None of this is to diminish the excellent work from the rest of the cast, all of whom deserve individual mentions but hey, I gotta go to bed. All the tech serves the production sensitively and unobtrusively (especially the set design), and, of course, nothing this polished and well-judged comes into being without the vision and passion of a particularly capable and dedicated director.

If you're not sure about whether you'll enjoy this play, you're in the same boat I was in five hours ago. Now, I unreservedly recommend you make time to see this production. It's that good.

Gerard Johnson

Sardines magazine:

Like ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’, Harold Brighouse’s 1915 Lancashire comedy is an oft-performed favourite of amateur theatre. The downside of this popularity is that some dismiss it as a worthy but dated old warhorse.

How wrong they are.

Funny, wise and touching, ‘Hobson’s Choice’ is a true English masterpiece and deserves to be cherished as such. So I’m glad to report that South London Theatre have come up with a production that does it justice. The performances here are exceptionally strong, most noteably from Gemma-May Bowles as Hobson’s ferociously determined eldest daughter Maggie and Oliver Jones as Will Mossop, the lowly educationally-challenged bootmaker she takes under her wing.

In less accomplished hands there is a danger that Maggie could come across as a one-dimensional bossy-boots, but Bowles manages to imbue her with such twinkling wit and intelligence that we’re presented with a character that’s easy to warm to. At times, the briskness of her delivery tends to make some of her dialogue a touch indistinct, but on the whole this is a Maggie to be proud of.

Likewise, lesser actors might fall into the trap of portraying Will Mossop as a gormless George Formby-esque caricature. Instead, Oliver Jones gives us a fully-rounded portrait. As the character grows in confidence under Maggie’s influence, so does Jones’ performance. Every facial expression, every stuttering hesitation is spot-on. And his timing is to die for.

As Maggie’s younger sisters Alice and Vickey, Ellen Hunter and Hayley Crossland both make the most of their comic moments, while Alex Watts and Owen Chidlaw also impress as their suitors Albert and Freddie.

There’s quality in the smaller roles too with Matthew Lyne (Jim Heeler), Chloe Moffat (Ada Figgins), David Blatcher (Tubby Wadlow), Maggie Cearns (Mrs Hepworth) and Daniel Kelly (Dr MacFarlane) all turning in finely-judged performances.

Which brings us to Hobson himself. Initially, Christopher Vian-Smith seems to lack the right degree of bluster and bragadoccio required for this self-important Northern windbag. However, his quieter, more understated approach does work well in the later more reflective scenes when we are required to sympathise with his plight.

The quality of the acting is well-served by a simple yet effective stage design which deftly takes us through three different settings and even manages to incorporate an extremely convincing trap door – no mean feat at the Bell theatre!

Props and costumes are fine for the most part, but – and this is a small quibble - given that this is a play about a 1915 Lancashire bootmaker, there is rather too much obviously modern footwear on display, particularly among the men.

Those criticisms aside, director Stephanie Urquhart and her cast and crew are to be congratulated on a highly entertaining show. 'Hobson’s Choice' may be an old warhorse, but this production proves that it doesn’t deserve to be put out to grass just yet.

Everything Theatre website:

Harold Brighouse’s classic play has enjoyed an enduring success since its debut in 1916. From Broadway to a London ballet, this tale of family life, love, and all the chaos in between seems to have no bounds to its versatility, and continues to entertain in this new amateur production.

Henry Horatio Hobson, widower and proud owner of his Salford boot shop is the epitome of the self-made Victorian man. The only stains on his respectable reputation are his three daughters, who, while helping him run the business (which he chooses to ignore in favour of the local pub), amount to nothing more than a nuisance. The only way he can keep a lid on their ‘bumptiousness’ is to marry them off, a scheme that is doomed from the start.

For those with a liking for strong female leads, Hobson’s Choice is sure to appeal. For its time it is remarkably forward thinking regarding women’s rights and it is refreshing to see female roles that are both funny and powerful by their own merit. Maggie Hobson, the eldest of the three daughters and invaluable to her father, takes charge of her own life, and consequently everyone else’s, without a flicker of fear. While a character such as Maggie could become unpleasantly obnoxious, Gemma-May Bowles’ brilliant portrayal makes her nothing short of impressive, and by the end of the play you are glad to have seen her succeed. Alongside her is the endearingly timid William Mossop, Maggie’s husband of choice, played by a quivering Oliver Jones. Their partnership, which at first was purely comical, develops into an inspiring and moving portrayal of marriage, humbly preaching the value of hard work, perseverance, and faith.

While the South London Theatre is a little out of the way from central London, their high quality productions are worth the travel, and there is always the added appeal of visiting a converted theatre for those curious drama lovers. Once a fire station, the building itself is quite impressive, and although the auditorium is tiny, it serves to create a great atmosphere, specially when blessed with a good audience (as it was on this performance).

Overall the production was extremely well made, with convincing costumes and simple but effective set design, all coming together to make for a very engrossing play. With no significant faults except for the sadly short booking time, Hobson’s Choice is definitely worth catching while you can.

Pros: Extremely strong cast in a very well-executed drama.

Cons: The show is only on for a week!


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Reminiscences and Anecdotes

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See Also

Hobson's Choice (1985)



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