Placing traditional, Victorian Northern comedy ‘Hobson’s Choice’ in the directorial hands of Nadia Fall was always going to be an exciting risk. The writer/director of ‘Home’ at the National’s pop-up venue knows everything about documentary realism, resilience and despair, and a youngster’s sense of place in the world. How would she treat the old-fashioned repertory warhorse in which a feisty daughter turns the tables on her domineering and drunken shoeshop-owning father to both rob him of his best bootmaker and simultaneously engineer not only her own marriage but those of her scatty sisters?
The play is set almost entirely in a grimy Manchester cellar, so how would it translate to the woodland glades of the Open Air Theatre?
Those who prefer their Lancashire traditionally soot-pickled and black-and-white would do best to stick with the tremendous 1954 David Lean movie with Charles Laughton, John Mills and a just-out-of-Bristol Prunella Scales, because Fall has time-shifted the production to the starting-to-swing 1960s against a Holland-Dozier-Holland soundtrack and colourful mini-skirted fashion.
It’s extraordinary how well the original dialogue and plot twists from the play set in the 1880s, as well as the class and gender politics, retain relevance and comedy when relocated to mid-century dolly-bird modernism. This updating may owe a nod to One Man Two Guvnors, but it’s every bit as clever.
As Hobson, a part often thought of as the Salford ‘King Lear’, Mark Benton turns in a big beast of a performance which combines bombast with equal measures of drunken vulnerability and Coronation Street camp and falters only occasionally in the demanding longer speeches. Fresh from Game of Thrones and the wonderful Happy Valley, Karl Davies is endearing as the hapless bootmaker Will Mossop who blossoms in both love and confidence under the brisk tutelage of bluestocking Maggie, his shy sexual awakening is a special gem. Setting it to Gerry and the Pacemakers' 'How Do You Do What You Do To Me' is a stroke of genius and typifies Fall's ability to balance the comic with the poignant.
The evening, though belongs to Jodie McNee as Maggie – carrying all before her in her will to get her own way. Her blunt humour conceals a real tenderness for Will beneath the abrasive exterior which puts the audience is in thrall and has them cheering her on to succeed.
If you know and love the film, you’ll relish the way Nadia Fall has blown the dust off an old favourite. If you don’t know its history – so what? - this is now a splendid sixties comedy.
We saw it on Ladies' Day at Royal Ascot, and if we fancied a flutter we might just put a fiver on Hobson's Choice to win a West End transfer.
Hobson’s Choice continues at the Open Air Theatre Regent’s Park until 12 July. Mondays-Saturdays at 7.45pm with matinees Thursday and Saturday at 2.15pm. Tickets £25-£45 from 24-hour box office on 0844 826 4242 or the theatre website www.openairtheatre.com
We saw Hobson’s Choice with tickets and hospitality provided by The Corner Shop PR.