Out with the old

9th May 2003 at 01:00
HOBSON'S CHOICE. By Harold Brighouse. Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester

Four young people assert their independence from an older generation in the most famous play of the Manchester School.

Aleks Sierz reports

Harold Brighouse's 1916 classic Hobson's Choice - whose title refers to an old saying which means you have no choice at all - was written during the First World War, partly as a result of its author witnessing the emotional devastation of armed conflict. A conscript nation doesn't have much choice but to fight, after all.

Set in Hobson's Salford boot shop in the 1870s, the play shows what happens when the owner tries to control his "uppish" three daughters. After he calls Maggie, the eldest, too old to marry, she defies him by wedding Willie Mossop, the firm's champion boot-maker. They move out, taking most of Hobson's customers with them, while he drowns his sorrows in drink. In the end, they return and take over his business, but they look after him.

Director Braham Murray says: "Hobson's Choice is the most famous play of the Manchester School but it has never been done at the Royal Exchange. It's a great work about a historic era when male domination of women was finally broken. In it, Maggie takes on men at their own game - sex and business - and beats them."

The play is both "a comic King Lear, with an old man and two horrid daughters, who's finally looked after by the third", and "quite a revolutionary piece, set in the Industrial Revolution at a moment when people realise that the workers who make the shoes are important and you cannot go on exploiting them for ever."

Harold Brighouse, says Braham Murray, was "well aware that he was also reasserting the importance of northern culture over that of the metropolitan elite". At that time, Salford "was a world of poverty and depression, with the town built on open sewers and having a huge child mortality rate". Apart from one minor character, "there is no one of real money in the play".

In the dialogue, "love is barely mentioned; it's too sentimental a thing in a tough world, which is all about business and bargains".

He says the story remains relevant, "because it's basically about four young people who free themselves from the grip of the older generation and make their own lives, which is something every generation can relate to."

By contrast, a completely different version of the play can be seen at the Young Vic in London from June to August. Rewritten by Tanika Gupta, it relocates the action to a modern Asian context, where the conflict between parents and children really sizzles.

Hobson's Choice runs in rep from May 13 to June 28 Box office: 0161 833 9833 Young Vic box office: 020 7928 6363

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