Stars explained: * A production of no real merit with failings in all areas. ** A production showing evidence of not enough time or effort, or even talent, and which never breathes any real life into the piece – or a show lumbered with a terrible script. *** A good enjoyable show which might have some small flaws but has largely achieved what it set out to do.**** An excellent show which shows a great deal of work and stage craft with no noticeable or major flaws.***** A four star show which has found that extra bit of magic which lifts theatre to another plane.
Half stars fall between the ratings


Henry Hobson, played by Rob Phillips, holding court, being largely ignored byPip Oliver as Maggie (left, Kerry Grehan as Alice and Aimée Attard as Vicky. Pictures: Alastair Barnsley.

Hobson’s Choice

Highbury Theatre Centre


Harold Brighouse’s wonderful northern comedy might be more than a century old but it still comes over fresh as a daisy with some lovely comic lines – and it still has quite a few echoes today as far as sexual equality goes.

Set in 1880 in Salford, widower Henry Hobson is a bastion of male chauvinism, a pillar of prejudice against women, who sees his three daughters as both unpaid help in his bootmaker’s emporium, which is good, and a drain on his wealth as he has to house and feed them, which is bad.

To his Freemason cronies, and fellow chauvinists, in the local hostelry, The Moonrakers, where he spends much of his time and money, he is a skilled orator and debater, to everyone else he is a boring old blowhard.

Rob Phillips gives us, on the one hand, an unctuous Henry where his up-market customers are concerned, while on the other, a pompous windbag who thinks women are virtually a sub species of low intelligence, a view which leads him to the fatal mistake of upsetting his eldest daughter Maggie.

You don’t tell the person who really runs your business and makes most of your sales, that she is too plain and a bit too much “on the ripe side” at 30, to marry off, and not only that but that she should accept her lot in life as an old maid left on the shelf; at least you don’t tell her that and expect to get away with it, but Henry did and certainly didn’t.

It is a glorious performance by Pip Oliver as the strong-willed Maggie who takes life by its bootstraps to give her father his comeuppance. She decides she will marry Henry’s boot hand Will Mossop. Mossop, in another lovely performance, this time from Highbury newcomer Phil Astle, might not be the brightest bootmaker in Salford, but by heck he is the best. Which is just what Maggie needs for her plan.


The pair provide a delightful double act, Oliver as the determined daughter with a clear vision of what she wanted – and that included Will and his skills – while Astle gives us a nervous craftsman dragged up from his cellar workbench and frightened of his own shadow . . . so absolutely terrified of Maggie.

Then there are Maggie’s younger sisters, still deemed young enough to marry by Henry but starved of the funds to do so . . . for now.

There is Alice, played with an innocent air by Kerry Grehan, and her suitor, young solicitor Albert Prosser, played with good humour by Andrew Sargent, whose hapless courting methods see him own scores of bootlaces as an excuse for his daily visits and a pair of boots, for 20 shillings, he didn’t really want.

More secretive is young Vickey, played by Aimée Attard, who is always willing to stand up to her father, even though she never wins, whose beau is Fred Beenstock, played by Alex Jaep, of the respectable Beenstock feed and corn merchant family.

Everyone’s future is now in the hands of Maggie as she takes control and Brighouse’s clever script builds the plot quite beautifully to leave Henry a defeated, if somewhat defiant man, as only the really pig-headed, or in this case, male chauvinist pig-headed, can be.

Maggie skilfully manipulates things so that not only does Henry have to shell out enough money to allow his daughters to marry, not that he realises it at the time, but ends up doing so to save face and his good name – a name perhaps not as good as he thinks it is any more, but we will let that pass.

There is also good support from Sandra Haynes as Mrs Hepworth, the local toff from Hope Hall, who sows the seed of independence in Maggie by praising Will’s workmanship, and provides the wherewithal to bring her dream to fruition, and Andy Tomlinson as Jim Heeler, Henry’s masonic drinking companion.

Kimberley White gives us a cheerful then tearful Ada Figgins who was engaged to Will and brought his dinner dutifully every day until Maggie ensured love’s sweet bloom lost its lustre, and Ada her man, somewhat rapidly, while Maggie’s conquest, Will ducked and just hoped to survive.


Maggie with  Will Mossop, played by Phil Astle, Fred Beenstock (Alex Jaep), Vickey, Alice and Albert Prosser (Andrew Sargent)

Labouring away with Will in the cellar was Dave Douglas as boot and clog maker Tubby Wadlow, who also doubles as Henry’s servant as his boss lies on his not so much death, as feeling very sorry for himself, bed, where he is attended by Highbury regular Rob Alexander as Dr MacFarlane.

There are elements of King Lear in this tale of a father with three daughters, ending not with his madness, but his near bankruptcy and only the daughter he has spurned the most prepared to care for him.

But there the similarities end with Brighouse, a Salford man himself, creating some wonderful comic lines for Henry and particularly Maggie and Will, including the now successful Will at the close, emerging as the confident businessman under Maggie’s tutelage – which in this case is posh for thumb.

It’s a play that depends upon accents to bring the characters to life and t ’cast did a gradely job there wi’ their Northern turn o’ t’ phrase. A purist might see a little bit o’ Tyke mixed in wi’ t’ Lanky but Southerners would never notice.

The whole production, directed by Yvonne Lee, is set off by some wonderful sets deigned by Malcolm Robertshaw, making use of a revolve which comes into its own in the quick change from Maggie and Will’s dull cellar rooms to Henry’s warm and cosy parlour.

The opening set, Hobson’s shop, was quite something though, with a trapdoor down to the cellar from where Will and Tubby emerged, shelves stocked with shoes and boots, Maggie’s desk and ledgers and even a cobbled street outside the shop door.

This has all the ingredients and certainly the potential to be a first class production with good sets and costumes, slick scene changes, a wonderful, classic script and some fine acting. Unfortunately, opening night relied too heavily on prompts which slows the pace, loses momentum and occasionally creates confusion, which is a pity.

That should have concentrated the mind considerably though, and with opening night out of the way – treat it as a dress - it should now settle down and start to fulfil its promise as a thoroughly entertaining evening. To 23-09-17

Roger Clarke


Incidentally, by a strange co-incidence, my great grandfather was a gentleman’s bootmaker in first Manchester and then by 1881 was supplying the gentry of Oldham 

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