Review: Hobson's Choice, Royal Exchange Manchester

Tanika Gupta’s spirited version of Hobson’s Choice made its stage debut 16 years ago at the Young Vic. Restaged by Atri Banerjee, it is the penultimate production in a very successful season at the Royal Exchange. In this adaptation of Brighouse’s 1916 play, the action has been transported to 1980s Manchester – the Hobsons are now an Indian family, who arrived in Manchester a decade prior, following Idi Amin’s expulsion of Asians from Uganda.  

Tony Jayawardena plays the self-centred, domineering, Thatcher-loving patriarch Hari Hobson who mistreats his three daughters Durga (Shalini Peiris), Sunita (Maimuna Memon) and Ruby (Safiyya Ingar). He’s a man yearning for control – he harshly admonishes his daughters and refuses to pay them for working at his shop (in this adaptation, Hobson owns a tailoring business, rather than a cobbler’s shop). When he insists that they get married in an attempt to control their increasingly rebellious behaviour, he cruelly insults his eldest daughter, the intelligent and astute Durga. Having selfishly realised his business would fail without her, he forbids Durga from getting married and brands her a spinster. It soon transpires that he has met his match as his daughters respond by playing him at his own game. Peiris gives a standout performance as Durga, who fiercely leads the power struggle that ensues, enlisting her father’s dutiful and exploited employee Ali Mossup (Esh Alladi) to be her husband and business partner.

Designer Rosa Maggiore’s set design is intricate and beautiful, with heaps of colourful fabrics dressing the stage, and a portrait of Tory Prime Minister Ted Heath (a man greatly admired by Hari Hobson) positioned grandly at the centre, flourished with a garland. Bollywood music and Acidhouse 80s classics are fused together to evoke the spirit of the times – it provides a stunning antecedent of the multicultural Manchester of today.

The play’s strengths undoubtedly lie in how the actors toe the fine line between comedy and drama. The comic moments are plentiful and guaranteed to induce laughter, and yet beneath the surface, the play subtly reflects on social class, the shifting position of women in society, and the brutal and bewildering experience of being an immigrant in 1980s England.

This reworked version is executed brilliantly by Atri Banerjee (who stepped in during the rehearsal stages to replace director Pooja Ghai). The plot is fast paced and full of jokes, but crucially the characters are carefully developed and subtly portrayed. Tony Jayawardena demonstrates brilliant variety, on the one hand jesting and making sardonic observations with exceptional comic timing, and only seconds later transforming into a stern and intimidating presence on stage whilst battling with his daughter. Memon as Sunita and Ingar as Ruby are convincing as both clothes- and boys- obsessed young women, but also in the tender comradery they display towards each other as they defy their father’s attempts to control them.

All in all, this adaptation of Brighouse’s popular play is finely executed – a brilliant cocktail of comic hilarity and subtle, social commentary.

Hobson’s Choice is playing the Royal Exchange until 6 July. For more information and tickets, see the Royal Exchange website.