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Booted out

Aleks Sierz previews a classic about family strife

Hobson's Choice By Harold Brighouse York Theatre Royal March 28 to April 16 Tel: 01904 623568

Harold Brighouse's 1916 classic, Hobson's Choice, is set in Henry Horatio Hobson's Salford boot shop and shows what happens when he tries to control his three "uppish" daughters. After he calls Maggie, the eldest, "too old" to wed, she defies him by marrying Willie Mossop, the firm's champion boot-maker. When the couple's rival firm takes away his customers, Hobson has no choice but to do what she says.

Director Gregory Floy says: "The play appeals because it's got cracking parts for actors. Not many people realise that it's set in the 1880s, and it's interesting that Brighouse was writing with this backward glance at the past."

The play "deals with parent-child relationships, male chauvinism and early feminism. The daughters are under the paternal thumb and yet jockeying for their freedom at the same time. The only route available is marriage, but all three get what they want. All the daughters embody an aspect of Hobson: his strength, his determination, his bullying, his wheedling and his desperation."

For Floy, "Maggie is a wonderful balance of warmth, determination and female independence. She also nurtures the family. At first, she sees in Willie a way out of the restrictions of life with her family, so it's easy to think that this is just a business proposition, but it's not - she's obviously been watching him for a while and her feelings are buttoned up.

It's extremely moving, especially what she doesn't say rather than what she does."

By contrast, "Willie is Maggie's other half. He's all latency - he is so self-deprecating that one wonders if he is really as naive as he appears.

There's a danger that this might turn into some kind of coyness or tweeness that I don't think is right for this play, which really is completely unsentimental. If the main theme is love, what's missing from the play is maternal love.

"Having died years before, Hobson's wife is absent. But, by the end of the play, the daughters are getting pregnant, so all the maternal potential is in the future."

It's surprising, Floy says, "how seriously the play treats the subject of alcoholism, which is seen as a destructive disease. Most other plays of the time treat alcoholism quite lightly. Here, the doctor's warnings to Hobson and his cronies are really serious. Still, Hobson's Choice is also funny and very enjoyable."

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