5 & 27 June 2019.
Royal Exchange, Manchester.
Cobblers? Not this production of Hobson’s Choice!
The Boot Shop of Harold Brighouse’s classic comedy is now a tailor’s in Tanika Gupta’s zippy new adaptation, and the original play’s Salford-based family business has crossed the Irwell to become embedded within the hustle and bustle of 1980s Manchester.
Gupta’s Hobson is called Hari – he and his family are Ugandan-Asians who have settled in Manchester after being expelled from their home by Idi Amin. Hari’s wife, who managed to smuggle diamonds in her pakoras as they left for England, has now passed away leaving him as the sole parent to their three increasingly assertive grown-up daughters.
In truth, the Mancunian setting never feels like anything other than window dressing with a sprinkling of familiar place names, a confusing conflation of Ancoats and the Northern Quarter, and the obligatory (and by now clichéd) mention of The Haçienda.
By contrast, Gupta’s focus on a South-Asian family is inspired, the new cultural context serving to both refresh and reframe Brighouse’s tale of family expectations, entrepreneurial ambition, and strong-willed women. The family’s experiences as first-generation immigrants are woven subtly throughout the play’s fabric, and the occasional references to struggle and tough times jab forcefully within the production’s good-humoured context.
Designer Rosa Maggiora embraces the updated setting enthusiastically. In Brighouse’s original version Hobson’s shop is “dingy but business-like”, here it has become a riot of colours, with vivid fabrics piled neatly around the stage, and cascading down chandelier-like from above. Alongside the shop’s shimmering saris, characters’ clothing channels the 1980s – especially that of the two younger sisters and their boyfriends, who sport a selection of bright leggings, blouson jackets, tracksuit tops, and even an acid-washed denim RaRa skirt.
The play’s comedy has been dialled up a notch, to the audience’s obvious delight, although there’s enough of substance beneath the high-jinks and biting family banter to ensure the protagonists don’t drift towards caricature.
Tony Jayawardena’s Hari is all bristling bluntness and dry asides. Although it’s hard to feel sympathy for his downfall, there’s no satisfaction to be found in it. While his name may be above the shop, it’s his daughter Durga (portrayed with great skill and charm by Shalini Peiris) who is ultimately the play’s central character.
Her plan to forge a new life via a marriage of convenience of her own making still feels bold and brave. What she proposes is not just a pragmatic ‘business proposition in the shape of a man’ but a transgressive act. She is a woman unwilling to play by men’s rules, constructing a union that rebels against social convention by trampling on accepted differences of class and status and also (in Gupta’s updating) reaching out across faiths.
As Durga’s chosen suitor Ali Mossop, Esh Alladi is extremely funny but he and Peiris are also capable of moments of touching tenderness together as the unlikely but increasingly well-matched couple.
Markedly, as a married woman, Durga retains her maiden name, but in doing so also ditches the Hobson moniker that her father had adopted (to sound more English) and reclaims her true heritage as Ms Patel.
Her wider family’s journey reaches a similarly satisfactory conclusion, something emphasised by the two scenes that book-end Atri Bannerjee’s lively and loveable production. The people on the move in the evocative opening sequence are blown in by ‘winds of change’, and forced to make a new home with the meagrest of possessions. A generation later they take to the stage with a blast of catwalk confidence, celebrating their hard-won successes and creating a proud new identity beneath the banner of Northern Quarter Eastern Chic.
Images by Marc Brenner