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Hobson’s Choice review at Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester – ‘buoyant and enjoyable’

Tony Jayawardena in Hobson's Choice at Royal Exchange, Manchester. Photo: Marc Brenner

In 2003, the Young Vic staged Tanika Gupta’s Salford update of Harold Brighouse’s robust play – originally written in 1915, and set in 1880 – now, in a further reworked version, Gupta has set it during the height of Thatcherism in Manchester’s bustling, though then relatively dormant and down-at-heel, Northern Quarter.

Tony Jayawardena plays Hari Hobson – he changed his name from Patel to sound more British – a widowed Ugandan-Asian tailor with three headstrong daughters. He’s a bully and a relic, forcing his offspring to work for no wages and casually telling his eldest child, Durga (Shalini Peiris), that at the ripe old age of 30 she’s on the shelf. The immensely competent Durga has other ideas though. She has set her sights on the unprepossessing Ali Mossop, her father’s skilled but illiterate cutter. Much to her sisters’ dismay and Ali’s bemusement, she decides he is the man for her, and tells him so.

Director Atri Banerjee, replacing Pooja Ghai late in the day, does an impressive job. This is a buoyant and enjoyable, if occasionally slightly broad, production. There are a few missteps – an altercation between Durga and the woman to whom Ali is originally betrothed takes the form of a jarring slapstick episode – but for the most part this is an assured, embracive staging, large-hearted and funny.

Rosa Maggiore’s busy set, complete with chandelier of sari fabric and a garlanded photo of Ted Heath, boasts a moveable plywood platform that allows for the shift in location from Hobson’s shop to the site of Durga’s wedding.

Shalini Peiris and Avin Shah in Hobson’s Choice at Royal Exchange, Manchester. Photo: Marc Brenner

In revisiting the material, it seems Gupta has ironed out some of the issues with her earlier version. It displays a real acuity in its portrait of a controlling patriarch who falls apart emotionally and physically once he has pushed all his daughters away. It’s also nuanced in exploration of societal change and the differing experiences of being a first and second generation immigrant in 1980s Britain.

Jayawardena gives a suitably stage-filling performance as Hobson though he lacks the truly cruel streak of a proper domestic tyrant. Peiris is self-possessed and clear-eyed as Durga and there’s an endearing cameo from Yasmin Wilde, who played Durga at the Young Vic, as a wealthy doctor and benefactor.

However it’s Esh Alladi who really makes a mark as Mossop. He’s magnificent in the role, morphing convincingly from nervy underling to confident businessman, and seemingly growing in stature as he grows in self-assurance.

It’s a performance of real comic dexterity too; he’s equally good at prat-falling with a tiffin tin in hand as he is bashfully asking his future brother-in-laws about foreplay, but all this would have less of an impact if he and Peiris didn’t also capture the sense of mutual respect and tenderness that develops between the couple.

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Verdict
Buoyant update of Harold Brighouse's play set in Manchester's Northern Quarter
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