By Harold Brighouse in a new adaptation by Tanika Gupta
Royal Exchange, Manchester
31 May 2019 - 6 July 2019, 2 hr 40 min with interval
There’s no choice involved in this energetic reimagining of one of the masterworks from the Manchester School of plays. It’s here to make you laugh.
Tanika Gupta artfully sets it around the Asian dynasty running a tailoring shop in Manchester in the 1980s, rather than the Salford bootmaker of the 1880s in Harold Brighouse’s original.
Gupta places Hari Hobson and his three daughters among the thousands of Ugandan Asians expelled by Idi Amin a decade earlier, who found refuge in the UK. That’s why a garlanded portrait of Edward Heath takes pride of place in his premises. No hostile environment back in that particular day...
But then Hobson’s Choice is not concerned with how matters may have changed, so much as how they stay the same - until one strong individual makes a stand. The fact that it happens to be a woman was ‘on message’ in 1915 – when the play was first performed – just as much as it is now. Durga Hobson (Shalini Peiris) rebels against dad’s patriarchy when she spots the money-making potential of one of his key employees, the hapless Ali Mossop (Esh Alladi). With her father making threats of arranged marriage, it’s time to act.
This production is able to mine for contemporary comedy in seams that Brighouse could never have imagined, but it’s the timeless quality of the story that shines throughout. That, and the physical comedy that director Atri Banerjee injects.
Esh Alladi’s nimble performance as the put-upon Ali is a joy, and if Tony Jayawardena’s Hari never achieves full storm-force tyranny, then he settles instead to play Brighouse’s version of King Lear for laughs. His comic timing is superb, even if one or two other cast members are still prone to talking through the abundant laughs.
The inevitable ‘tempest’ of the second act could also have done with some trimming. But if you have a taste for traditional dishes served with modern relish then this is for you.