One of the treasures of the London theatre scene is when summer finally shows its face and the open air season begins. There is a charming sense of community when one is sharing a theatrical experience outdoors – the etiquette and restrictions of the indoor theatre disappear and we are allowed to breathe in a space with an endless ceiling and a sense of the performance being shared with not only its audience, but nature as well.
Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre has managed to programme a varied selection of shows over the years, loved by audience members of all ages and attracting performers of the highest standards. With Hobson’s Choice, they tackle Harold Brighouse’s classic about gender differences and class and set it in the 1960s, where things started to change for women. A self-pitying owner of a shoe shop in Salford, Henry Horatio Hobson is struggling to control his three daughters’ attempts at independence in a world slowly moving towards female liberation. His eldest daughter Maggie, the feisty brains behind the success of his business, wishes to free herself from the limitations of womanhood and decides to ignore class and gender restrictions: she sets on marrying Willie Mossop, a simple shoe-maker working for her father. Disgracing her father and family – and perplexing the unambitious Willie – Maggie takes matters into her own hands and tries to determine her future, affecting all around her.
Hobson’s Choice has warmth and heartfelt charisma nurtured by all performers in this wonderful production. Mark Benton shines as the ever-charming but irascible and dramatic Hobson, drinking himself into oblivion to escape the riot of his daughters and the emptiness of losing people who care for him. He struggles with his daughters, lead majestically by the feisty Maggie – Jodie McNee’s power-house performance owning the stage like a 60s Joan of Arc. She gloriously entwines all around her, but still with deep sincerity and spirit. Matched by Karl Davies’s shy and kind-hearted Willie Mossop, with a voice that melts your heart, the pair not only depict the questioning of gender and class so relevant to the play, but also what real love can be – and should be – once nurtured and given a chance.
The play is a comedy filled with lots of subtext that resonates with a modern, liberated audience who know the journey that women have slowly travelled to gain equal rights. It touches on the struggle of class differences, how our lives are determined by our family and how the family bond still has a hold on us in some way. All unfolds in fluid, swift action and as an audience member you feel a deep connection to the Hobsons and their lives – especially Maggie’s quest to voice her own desires and wants.
Director Nadia Fall has created a tender, bubbly and loveable production that melts your heart, entertains and enchants in the set of the Open Air Theatre’s magical space. Being outdoors it connects us to the root of the play, the heart of the performance and a sense of togetherness across gender, race and class. The music added to the performance will make you smile, and Fall shows she is a master of detail. The play is originally set in the 1880s, but Fall’s change fits it perfectly and resonates on many levels. Ben Stones’s design is naturalistic and impressive, and with the natural set and light of the park, Hobson’s Choice is another wonder added to Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre’s impressive CV.
Hobson’s Choice is playing at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre until 12 July. For more information and tickets, see the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre website.