The comedic trope of the domineering father, who needs to learn that times have moved on and the world is no longer his to command, served two Lancashire writers –Bolton’s Bill Naughton and Eccles’s Harold Brighouse – well in the 20th century.
Not for the first time, a smart and gifted British Asian writer has realised that regarding these cleverly structured stories from a migrant community’s perspective can reveal new seams of comedy gold to be mined. Ayub Khan-Din (writer of “East is East”) pulled this off with “Rafta Rafta”, an adaptation of Naughton’s “All in Good Time” (probably better known as “The Family Way”). Now, Tanika Gupta has taken Brighouse’s “Hobson’s Choice” and reset it in time and culture (though not location). It works a treat.
Hari Hobson is a Ugandan Asian, one of thousands ejected by ‘that monster Amin’, offered a home in Britain by then Prime Minister, Ted Heath (whom Hari, understandably, idolises). Heath’s time has come and gone. This is the mid-1980s and Margaret Thatcher is about to win another general election. Hari, whose family escaped Uganda with just the clothes on their backs – and a few diamonds craftily lodged inside pakoras, thanks to the foresight of his late wife – now owns a successful clothing shop on Oldham Street. Though the family name was originally Patel, Hari adopted the surname of the previous owner (Mr Hobson) as a gesture of integration and gratitude.
As the play opens, Hari Hobson is having woman trouble; not from his late wife (obviously) but from the three, now grown-up, daughters she left him. Sunita (Maimuna Memon) and Ruby (Safiyya Ingar) have become rather too much the Manc party girls (though only their older sister, Durga, knows about the two of them sneaking out of their bedroom window to go to the Hacienda). Hari tells them to buck up or he will find each of them a husband and be rid of them. Happily (or so he thinks) his one useful, albeit lippy, daughter, Durga, is a ‘confirmed spinster’, too old (at 30) to ever find a husband. Needless to say, the smart and savvy Durga, sees things differently.
Hidden away in the basement is Ali Mossop (gifted a British surname by his employer) whose legal status in the UK is in doubt, but whose talent as a tailor is not. When a wealthy local socialite declares the shy little tailor a genius, Durga’s mind is made up. Ali will be her husband and Hobson’s will be her business. Much of the joy in the tale lies in the determined, devious and delightful ways she invents for making these things come to pass.
Casting is key here, and the three main roles are pefectly assigned. Tony Jayawardena’s Hari is all bombast, bluster and booze – a bully brought to his knees by drink and his own over-weaning sense of entitlement. We don’t pity him, but we don’t hate him either, which is to say he’s pitched about perfect for the role.
Esh Alladi takes on a role made famous by John Mills. Alladi makes us believe in Ali’s transformation from stuttery, semi-literate, downtrodden employee into capable, confident businessman – an assured, heart-warming performance.
Ali, of course, would be nothing without the belief, support and relentless prompting of his resourceful, indomitable wife. Shalini Peiris as Durga might be a hard sell as a dowdy, ‘bit too ripe’ spinster, but in all other respects, she carries away the audience’s heart. She has stage presence, brightness and sureness of delivery. We want her to win, we know she will win, and we are delighted to watch just how she wins.
A few more performances will see the cast place greater trust in the humour (there’s a little bit of rushing and kicking the laughs), but Atri Banerjee’s direction is light, inventive and effective (the growing tenderness and trust between Durga and Ali is nicely handled). Hats off to movement director, Jenny Ogilvie for the ‘fashion show’ cutrain call. Rosa Maggiora’s design works neatly – joyous colours alongside unfussy staging.
A rousing reception – well-earned.★ ★ ★ ★
Hobson’s Choice is at The Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester from 31 May – 6 July 2019.