Father and daughter go head-to-head in this intense 19th-century comedy. Timothy Ramsden reports
Harold Brighouse's beautifully crafted comedy, with its story of solid, late-Victorian businessman, Henry Horatio Hobson, outwitted by his eldest daughter, Maggie, as she instils confidence into shy shoemaker Will Mossop is, says director Tim Baker, "a play that needs to be seen". And heard, too. Reading alone cannot bring out its qualities. Baker finds the Lancashire speech style, with its direct speaking, drives the action forward: "It's not a reflective piece at all."
Underlying the laughter is something almost tragic. Respectable Hobson -"British, middle-class and proud of it" - is a chronic alcoholic who regards his three daughters as cheap labour; something that surprises even his drinking friend, Jim Heeler. "Hobson has constructed life round him with denial or control-freakery.
He doesn't like it when he realises the world is not as constructed by him," says Baker. "By the end he's the victim of his class, circumstances and the moral attitudes he thinks he's representing." It can provide sympathy for him, despite his behaviour.
Hobson does not see why his daughters "should have any ability to express themselves in the world, except through him". The younger ones' ambitions - Vicky looking for solid things such as a nice home and family, Alice for social elevation by marrying into the law - can be met by marriage. But Hobson intends Maggie to stay bound to his shop forever. The moment he tells her, with brutal frankness, that she is too old and unattractive to marry is one of two events that drive the plot. The other is the arrival of an important customer, Mrs Hepworth, to demand that all her footwear be made by the expert craftsman Will. Personal and business considerations jointly drive Maggie and the plot.
Maggie organises everyone around, but shows moments of vulnerability, such as when her father tells her she is unmarriageable, and after her act-three wedding when she quietly keeps a flower as souvenir of the day she has so briskly organised. Signs of "desperation makes her more human", and the role "not just a Cruella de Vil tour de force".
Her tactics involve threatening her father with legal action, but it is a paper-thin device. Baker points out it would only need Hobson to challenge it and (as the solicitor who has drawn up the papers admits) he would have called their bluff. He does not do so because of his paranoia over social disgrace.
As with Will, Maggie knows her man. The question is whether, by act four, Will Mossop has become his own man or merely Maggie's creature. Has she, Baker wonders, merely created another Hobson?