"Classic comedy updated with aplomb"
by Tim Mottershead for remotegoat on 06/06/19

An immensely varied Royal Exchange season draws to close with ‘Hobson's Choice’ by Harold Brighouse, in a new adaptation by Tanika Gupta, directed by Atri Banerjee. What is new about this, and what are the advantages of a new version?

In the 1915 original, widower Henry Hobson is a proud shoe manufacturer and shop proprietor in Salford, which he runs with his 3 grown-up daughters. The division of labour is that they do all the hard graft, whilst the patriarch conducts his ‘business meetings’ over a liquid lunch in the nearby pub. The question of girls’ wages remains an entirely imaginary point.

That much remains the same. But Henry becomes Hari (Tony Jayawardena), a South Asian Ugandan refugee, with action transposed to the 1980s of Manchester’s Northern Quarter (not quite the ‘hip’ location of today, and known by the somewhat less glamourous name of Ancoats). The restraining elements of family subservience in the original, are amplified by religion, caste, and status, with the setting now a tailors’ shop, all under the watchful eye of the portrait of a suitably garlanded Ted Heath. (Hobson is indebted to Prime Minister Heath’s policy to welcome 30,000 refugees, following their expulsion by President Idi Amin in 1972. Heath also underlines Hobson’s self-affirmed conviction that he firmly belongs to the middle classes.)

The question of independence and marriage brings things to a head. Whilst Hari is prepared to countenance that fact that his younger 2 daughters will eventually fly the nest (subject to him choosing suitable husbands of course), he is well aware that his eldest daughter Durga (Shalini Peiris) is the work-horse behind the business, and therefore envisages more of the same drudgery for her: in any case, at the age of 30, isn’t she a confirmed spinster “on the shelf and past her sell-by date”?

If this has a certain Cinderella-like resonance, when Durga has other ideas, and hatches a plot that to strike out on her own with the timid downtrodden shop-tailor Ali Mossop (Esh Alladi) in tow, there’s even a benefactor on hand to smooth the way, in the form of Dr Bannerjee (Yasmin Wilde). Later, a mishap befalls Hari that provides Durga with the ideal opportunity to see to it that her younger sisters Sunita (Maimuna Memon) and Ruby (Safiyya Ingar) might also make good their escape with their respective partners solicitor Steve Da Silva (Raj Bajaj) and Manchester Evening News photographer Robbie Singh (Gurjeet Singh). The incident is first occasion where her father is presented with ‘Hobson's Choice’: acquiesce to their demands or become, in his own words, the laughingstock of the Asian small business community.

The pitch perfect cast, completed by Hari’s drinking buddy Jim Heeler (Tony Hirst) and Avin Shah as Hari’s other tailor Tubby Mohammed, mine a rich seam of pathos, as well as laughs, with an alliterative sparring match in the second half that has to be witnessed to be believed!

The greatest tribute I can pay to this new adaptation is that it plays like an original. It will be loved by those coming to it afresh, whilst those familiar with the ‘old’ version (or perhaps more likely the 1953 David Lean film starring Charles Laughton) will be delighted by the way in which many familiar lines (e.g. “would you deny me my reasonable refreshment”) are given a witty new twist, as pungent as a freshly squeezed lemon. What not to like?

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