Three sisters on the stage

Hobson’s Choice , Seaford Little Theatre.

WHEN playwrights want to write about sisters they almost always use three of them. Three brothers for a fairytale, three sisters for the stage: just think Chekhov, or the weird ones in ‘Macbeth’ and the ungrateful ones in ‘Lear’. Harold Brighouse followed this pattern for his famous family drama, written in 1915, set in 1880, revived at Seaford in Stella Dench’s cosy production.

It is a measure of how far society has travelled over the century since the play first saw the light of day that its central theme - what Hobson perceives as his daughters’ shocking disrespect - in these days of equality between the sexes, is just terribly dated. What the cantankerous old Salford boot-seller Hobson saw as “uppishness” is no longer hilarious – if it ever was. While Hobson wants his daughters, Alice, Vickey and Maggie, to mind the shop, put his dinner on the table, and to marry who and when he chooses, they want what young girls have always wanted – a husband with prospects. Vickey, played with pert precision by Lindsey Holledge, has her eyes on Freddy Beenstock the son of a respectable corn merchant [charmingly played by Peter Barnes], while Alice [Jenny Humphries] has been seeing Albert Prosser, a young up-and-coming solicitor, played by the promising Chris Church. A clear dysfunction of age relationships rather confused the issue here, but Brighouse’s essential point about the desire for security and social advancement was well made.

Maggie is the eldest of the three, and her careful attention to the books has nearly as much to do with the success of the business as Willie Mossop’s bootmaking genius. Ann Mabey’s Maggie was attractive, forceful and brisk. Roland Boorman’s Willie Mossop, gave a comically touching performance, and though when faced with the prospect of ‘getting wed’, you could see he longed to be anywhere else, his monotone mumbles hint that here is someone who may sound faintly but will not go unheard. His protests however go unheeded, and what he has to learn is that Maggie’s whirlwind courtship is the best thing to come his way. Their closing scene was delicately moving, and in Ann Mabey’s performance we can see in her organising vigour a regard for him that is tender despite her veneer of bossiness.

To be sure, the audience laughed at Douglas Wragg’s buffoonery, as his Hobson descended from boozy bluster into mumbling incoherence. Wragg managed to convey the slow disintegration of Hobson’s grasp on both his daughters and his business, and finally himself. Unable to comprehend the modern ways, he has no choice in the end but to submit meekly to his lot, to be looked after by Maggie in the shop now run by a triumphantly successful Mossop.

In truth, Brighouse’s characterisations outside the main pair are seldom subtle, but offered small but rewarding opportunities for Dennis Picoot as Tubby Wadlow, the loyal cobbler with a nice line in homespun philosophy, Stephen Newbery as one of Hobson’s drinking pals, Mary Young as Mrs. Hepworth, a ‘posh’ customer and John Hamilton as Dr. MacFarlane, who tells Hobson a few home truths as he faces his final decline.

The three sets over the four acts set a challenge for Alan Lade’s set design, elegantly overcome by some precision painting and judicious multi-sided flats.

On the whole, the warmth of the writing and some attractive performances largely offset Brighouse’s out-dated social comment and the audiences went away secure in the knowledge that if we can still laugh at plays like this, then the recession and the eurozone can still be kept at bay.

Derek Watts