When I heard that the Royal Exchange had selected Hobson’s Choice as part of its spring/summer season, I was excited to see that it would a version adapted by Tanika Gupta. I have been a fan of her work for quite some time, and I was eager to see what she could do with Harold Brighouse’s much-loved classic.
Gupta’s adaptation swaps Salford for Tib Street in Manchester’s Northern Quarter, and firmly sets Hobson’s Choice in the late 1980s, amidst the Asian rag trade. Transposing the play’s setting from a cobbler’s shop to a tailor’s is an inspired decision that leads to one of the most vibrant, colourful sets I have seen at the Royal Exchange. A gorgeous chandelier, made from multi-coloured fabric hangs centre stage, alongside a garlanded portrait of Ted Heath, raising chuckles from the audience.
Heath allowed 30,000 South Asian Ugandan refugees to work and live in England. Hobson’s loyalty towards the Prime Minister is fitting statement, considering the political stance taken towards refugees nowadays.
The patriarchal family structure of Brighouse’s play transfers brilliantly into this new context, with Hari Hobson being the owner of the business. In reality, his three daughters run the shop, whilst he goes drinking in the local pub, the Crown and Kettle. Unpaid, and denied the possibility to choose their own husbands, his daughters soon rebel. Hobson’s eldest daughter, Durga, whom he labels “a spinster” at the age of 30, is too valuable to his business to be allowed to marry. She decides to take things into her own hands. “We all know Durga wears the trousers”.
Hobson’s Choice is bursting at the seams with fantastic characters. A stellar cast ensure that each character’s comedic potential is fully realised. From the lead actors through to the supporting cast, every actor gives their all.
Tony Jayawardena is magnificent in the title role. Hobson is a hard character to get right, play it too serious and he becomes an oppressive patriarch. However, Jayawardena perfectly captures Hobson’s pathos, being a widower, left to raise three daughters alone, drinking himself into an early grave. Even at his most unpleasant, Hari Hobson remains a sympathetic figure, which is credit to Jayawardena’s superb performance. Delivering his character’s dialogue with an acute perception of comic timing, making Hobson’s Choice incredibly entertaining.
Shalini Peiris is a revelation as Durga. Peiris’ performance displays exceptional dexterity, forging a character who is intelligent, strong-willed and duplicitous. She is a commanding presence on stage, and it is easy to see why people follow her orders. Peiris also manages to deliver tenderness, notably through her marriage to tailor Ali Mossop, played by an excellent Esh Alladi. Despite the wedding being over hasty, there is an endearing chemistry between the couple that culminates on their wedding night, a beautifully touching scene.
Atri Banerjee impresses on his main stage directorial debut. Banerjee has been the Associate Director behind many of the Royal Exchange’s best shows over the last few years, including West Side Story and The Mysteries. His experience in this space is evident as the play’s comic timing is executed with precision. Entrances and exits are timed to perfection, and the play’s physical comedy is elevated. Durga’s impromptu proposal to Ali Mossop becomes a hilarious, wonderfully orchestrated game of cat and mouse.
There is so much to love about Gupta‘s adaptation of Hobson’s Choice. It is an absolute delight from start to finish. It boasts a superb cast, excellent direction, vibrant, colourful costumes and set design, in addition to a magnificent soundtrack that wonderfully mixes traditional Asian music with contemporary dance music.
Hugely entertaining and incredibly funny, it is so good, I watched it twice. It is a much needed tonic in these uncertain times.
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Hobson’s Choice runs at the Royal Exchange Theatre until 6th July. You can get tickets here.