Marking David Bintley’s final season as Director of the Birmingham Royal Ballet, the company perform ‘Hobson’s Choice’, a classic and popular ballet based on English playwright and author Harold Brighouse’s play of the same name.
Set in Salford in the 1880s, the ballet follows the three daughters of Henry Hobson, proprietor of a successful boot shop and seasoned inebriate. Reluctant to lose these sources of cheap labour, Hobson refuses to allow his daughters to marry. His eldest daughter Maggie takes matters into her hands, proposing marriage to a man in a lower social class, and with him, setting up a new business.
With music from Paul Reade, the performance features live music from the Royal Ballet Sinfonia, conducted by Jonathan Lo.
In a performance reminiscent of Mary Poppins, Samara Downs is practically perfect as the feisty Maggie. Hardworking and business-minded, Maggie can be stern and unfeeling, treading heavily upon the ground with a purposeful determination and sense of responsibility. After she proposes to boot hand Will Mossop, there are moments of great tenderness and delicacy in her performance, in which a gentle passion begins to take root. Aware, but not caring, that Will belongs to a lower social class than the one she occupies, Maggie senses a similar mindset in him, and on leaving Hobson’s after Hobson takes the belt to Will for courting his daughter, the two set up their own business together, with Maggie drumming up business by handing out flyers. It is Maggie to whom her father will turn when he is in financial trouble.
Lachlan Monaghan is delightful as boot hand Will Mossop, adorably awkward and ever bashful. Working hard churning out shoes, his talent is noted when Mrs Hepworth, Hobson’s wealthiest customer, seeks to praise him personally for the shoes he made for her, and demands that only he will make her shoes from now on. When left alone in the shop, he begins trying on different pairs of shoes, and dances accordingly, performing a range of different styles as he imagines what it would be like, what a person would do, in such shoes, oblivious to the fact that he is being watched by Maggie. When Maggie proposes to him, he is reluctant to accept her offer, and moves away as she leans in towards him. He is all too aware of the social divide that governs polite society, and realises how their match would be perceived. However, with Maggie undeterred, he eventually falls for her, and the two form a strong and lasting partnership.
Jonathan Payne is hilarious as the drunk and disorderly Henry Hobson, who can barely walk in a straight line, is often swigging from a bottle, and going green at the sight of food. Payne’s performance is, as ever, so expressive, as he so skilfully conveys the varied thoughts and feelings of his character. Hobson does not want his daughters to marry, as their doing so would take them away from the shop, and Hobson relies on them for cheap labour, and for looking after him when he stumbles home in the early hours of the morning.
Hobson has some great comic moments within the ballet, and Payne takes full advantage of these, leaving his audience in hysterics, particularly when he hits the Moonraker Inn with his 3 drinking companions, with riotous performances here from Kit Holder, James Barton and Tom Rogers. His drinking leads to a serious downfall, however (quite literally, as the character falls into the cellar trap of a corn house), as he finds himself in serious debt, unable to pay it off, and finds he must rely on his daughters to help, with no choice but to accept their terms.
Delia Matthews and Laura Purkiss give accomplished and engaging performances as Alice and Vicky, Hobson’s other two daughters, whilst Mathias Dingman’s Fred Beanstock, son of a local corn merchant, and Rory Mackay’s Albert Prosser, a young lawyer, are very entertaining, the four young lovers a great source of comedy as they do their best to steal away together.
A true classic and a fitting piece to mark, to celebrate, David Bintley’s time as Director of the company, the ballet features some great and memorable scenes, most notably the procession of lovers at Peel Park, with a hilariously over-enthusiastic cymbalist bringing up the rear of the Salvation Army Band, and the final scene, which sees business booming for newlyweds Maggie and Will, who is now partner at Hobson’s.
A charmingly uplifting, hilariously funny and heartwarmingly romantic ballet, ‘Hobson’s Choice’ is a joyous demonstration of English escapism.