Theatre Review: HOBSON’S CHOICE – Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester

Tony Jayawardena as Hari Hobson in HOBSON'S CHOICE

Tony Jayawardena as Hari Hobson in HOBSON’S CHOICE. Photo Credit: Marc Brenner

Tanika Gupta breathes new life into Harold Brighouse’s classic comedy HOBSON’S CHOICE in this sharp and witty Ugandan-Asian adaptation

4.5 out of 5 stars

HOBSON’S CHOICE has become a bit of a fixture in theatrical repertoire. Since its premiere in 1915, the classic comedy has been revived and reimagined many times, with adaptions for film, TV and even a ballet. Yet Harold Brighouse’s play is still capable of springing a few surprises as Tanika Gupta’s latest adaptation for the Royal Exchange aptly demonstrates.

Set in Manchester in 1987, Gupta’s adaptation follows tailor Hari Hobson (Tony Jayawardena) who has left Uganda to make a new life for his family in Manchester’s ever-changing Northern Quarter. Business is doing well and Hobson thinks he rules the roost, but his oldest daughter, Durga (Shalini Peiris), knows better.

So when Hobson says that Durga and her sisters Sunita (Maimuna Memon) and Ruby (Safiyya Ingar) are too valuable to lose and must give up all ideas of getting married, Durga takes her fate into her own hands by announcing she intends to marry Hari’s best employee, Ali Mossop (Esh Alladi), opening up a rival shop nearby.

Shalini Peiris (Durga Hobson), Tony Jayawardena (Hari Hobson) & Esh Alladi (Ali Mossop) in HOBSON'S CHOICE

Shalini Peiris, Tony Jayawardena & Esh Alladi in HOBSON’S CHOICE. Photo Credit: Marc Brenner

Transporting the action from the play’s original setting in a cobbler’s shop in 1880s Salford to a sari shop in 1980s Ancoats, Gupta’s sharp and witty revival breathes new life into Harold Brighouse’s classic comedy.

Staged with real beauty and heart by Atri Banerjee, this thought-provoking yet incredibly funny revival cuts through generational divides by weaving fascinating Ugandan-Asian historical detail with wry Northern wit to deliver a refreshing, different take on a classic story.

Much of play’s success lies in its talented cast who all deliver magnificent performances. Tony Jayawardena is simply excellent as the definitive patriarch Hobson, fawning over his wealthy clients while remaining completely oblivious to the possibility of sharing any profits with the workers who helped to create his wealth.

Shalini Peiris is equally captivating as Durga, the sensible, clear-headed and ambitious elder daughter, refusing to be held back by her father’s stubbornness and out-dated ideals.

Esh Alladi as Ali Mossop in HOBSON'S CHOICE

Esh Alladi as Ali Mossop in HOBSON’S CHOICE. Photo Credit: Marc Brenner

Maimuna Memon and Safiyya Ingar deliver a fine turn as younger daughters Sunita and Ruby but it is Esh Alladi as bumbling wide-eyed Mossop who truly steals the show, delivering a masterclass of comedy as he stutters and dithers his way through disbelief, reluctance and sheer panic before finally accepting his fate at the hands of Durga.

Those who are familiar with Brighouse’s play will know that the wit and breeze of his writing is sometimes at the expense of the unsettling undercurrent behind Hobson’s refusal to help his daughters find happiness. The idea that at age 30 Durga too “over the hill” to get married is not only patronising but somewhat out-dated by today’s attitudes, although it does makes Hobson’s comeuppance feel all the more satisfying when it finally does come around.

At two hours 30 minutes long (including a 20-minute interval), the play could also benefit from a little trimming here and there, mainly towards the end when Durga goes to visit her failing father, but on the whole, Banerjee has paced the piece very well.

In fact, there is very little to criticise here, this sparkling and witty adaptation demonstrating that regardless of age, race or era, in family relationships, some stories never get old and some things never change.

HOBSON’S CHOICE runs at the Royal Exchange Theatre until 6 July 2019