What an absolute delight. And how interesting that this story of three daughters who defy their domineering father could transfer its Victorian social mores from a Salford cobblers’ shop in 1880 to an Ugandan Asian outfitters in Manchester in 1987 with total ease.
Hari Hobson, beautifully played by Tony Jaywardena, has three daughters, the frivolous girls-about-town Sunita and Ruby, played by Maimuna Memon and Ruby Hobson as a pair of Haçienda Hotties, and the responsible Durga, a dignified and determined Shalini Peiris, who runs the shop. The family came over from Uganda in 1972 when Idi Amin kicked them out, and arrived here with only the gold their late mother could smuggle in her underwear. Of course they weren’t called Hobson then, and there’s a funny gag about their name change.
The outfits they sell are made in the basement by Ali Mossop, a brilliant performance from Esh Alladi, supervised by Tubby Mohammed, a put-upon but loyal Avin Shah. But Mossop is the tailoring genius, which becomes clear when Dr Bannerjee, the commanding Yasmin Wilde, calls to find out who made her new suit, and demands to meet him. Mossop emerges blinking into the shop light, clearly terrified, and has no idea what to do when Dr Bannerjee congratulates him and says no one else is to make her clothes.
All of this is much to the annoyance of Hobson, who fails to see the significance and just wants to get to the pub. And it is those two flaws, lack of foresight and love of beer, that are his downfall. Like King Lear, he thinks it is enough that his word is law, and like Lear, he rails against the consequences and cannot be consoled, not even by his drinking buddy, the aptly named Jim Heeler, a solicitous Tony Hirst.
If you know the story, let me just say that it works beautifully in this milieu, and if you don’t I’m not going to spoil it. I will say that when Sunita marries rich young lawyer Steve da Silva, played exactly like a rich young lawyer by Raj Bajaj, Memon transforms her into a Cheshire Housewife to hilarious effect, and Ruby’s marriage to Evening Post photographer Robbie Singh, a streetwise Gurjeet Singh, is clearly going to be blessed with lots of kids. But it is the developing relationship between Durga and Ali that captures our hearts, beautifully played by both actors, and the greatest moment is when we know that Mossop is now in charge, even of his new wife. It’s just one word, and goes in a flash. I’ll leave you to find it, but the audience I was in gave a sharp intake of breath followed by a huge laugh.
Tanika Gupta wrote this version for the Young Vic, which staged it in 2003, at the same time that the Royal Exchange finally put on the original text, with John Thomson as Will Mossop. That might explain why it has taken so long for this version to get to Manchester. The show also had a late change of director, and Atri Bannerjee has picked up the reins with confidence. He, the designer Rosa Maggiore and the company have created a show that Exchange audiences will remember with great pleasure for a long time.
By Chris Wallis, Theatre Editor
Photos by Marc Brenner
Hobson’s Choice is on until July 6, 2019. For more information, click here.