John Savident (Fred Elliott in Coronation Street) has had plenty of practice playing fat, borish Mancunians and he puts this to good use as the lead in Hobson's Choice. Henry Hobson is a prosperous boot shop owner in 1880's Salford. His days are spent pontificating to his three daughters and spending long lunches in the Moonraker Inn. However, he has a problem: his daughters are increasingly showing signs of "uppishness" and he feels the need to reassert his authority.
Thinking that the threat of being married off will keep them in order, he decides that the youngest two should be got rid of (His eldest daughter, Maggie, being 30 years old, is an old maid and besides, she is too useful as a bookkeeper). The plans come to nothing when the penny-pinching Hobson realises he will have to pay a dowry and will lose his unpaid shopworkers.
Maggie notices that Willie Mossop, a shy, uneducated man who works below stairs, is a very skilful boot-maker. Spotting a business opportunity and having no regard for sentiment or convention she tells Willie that they are to marry. Willie is at first shocked, then fearful, then resigned as he is overcome by Maggie's insistence. The objections of her father and sisters and Willie's fiancée are similarly conquered.
Maggie and Willie leave Hobson's to set up in competition. Lacking any money, they struggle at first but soon they have stolen all the respectable trade, attracted by Willie's excellent boots. Maggie arranges an elaborate trick to force her father to allow her sisters to marry their fancy men. Left alone, Hobson takes to drink and his business is in tatters. Maggie knows she has to help him, but she does so without pity. Rather, she hatches a plan to make her husband the boss of Hobson's business.
When first produced in 1916 this was probably quite a shocking, though timely, play because of the reversal of gender rôles, although decency is restored towards the end when the now educated and confident Willie decides that he should wear the trousers. The family rifts and bossy women are no longer offensive even to the older generation, making this the sort of pleasant comedy you can take your Nana to see without cringing every time someone swears. The sauciest moment is when Willie settles down to sleep on the sofa on his wedding night and Maggie has to lead him by the ear to the bedroom but most of the good laughs come from Savident's skilful double-takes and contorted expressions.
Hobson's Choice runs at the Theatre Royal until Saturday 16th February 2008