United Kingdom Paul Reade, Hobson’s Choice: Birmingham Royal Ballet, David Bintley (Director) Royal Ballet Sinfonia, Philip Ellis (conductor) Birmingham Hippodrome, 22.02.2012 (GR)
Maggie Hobson Elisha Willis
Will Mossop Robert Parker
Henry Hobson David Morse
Choreography David Bintley
Design Hayden Griffin
Lighting John B Read
Transposing an original artistic creation from one media to another often depends on the strength of its story. The Harold Brighouse 1916 play Hobson’s Choice made an excellent subject for David Lean’s 1954 film and with such acclaimed stars as Brenda de Banzie, John Mills and Charles Laughton you might think it was guaranteed success. At first glance this ripping yarn of boots, betrothals and booze might not seem an ideal subject for ballet, but then you may not have reckoned with David Bintley, Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Director Genius. Charged by Sir Peter Wright with a commission from Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet for their 1989 season, Bintley was inspired by the Brighouse tale because it ‘conjured up in my mind images of movement’. On the opening night of this brief revival run on 22nd Feb 2012, images of late 19th century Salford were graphically portrayed by the original set designs of Hayden Griffin and lighting of John B Read. The movement of the talented group of BRB dancers did the rest.
After a glimpse of the row of emporia that included Henry Hobson’s retail outlet, Act I moved inside his boot-shop to reveal the proprietor (David Morse) returning home in the early hours, highly inebriated as per usual. The Royal Ballet Sinfonia under Philip Ellis kept up with his every stutter and lurch before eldest daughter Maggie (Elisha Willis) sternly propelled him up the stairs to bed. Paul Reade’s accompaniment showed what a loss to the ballet world his untimely death aged 54 was in 1997. (Another collaboration of his with Bintley was in1996, based upon Thomas Hardy’s novel Far from the Madding Crowd and their version is scheduled this coming June.) Early next morning,Fred Beenstock (Matthew Lawrence) arrived to continue his courtship of Hobson’s middle daughter Vickey (Carole Anne-Millar); their lovey-dovey exchange was as delightful as Reade’s catchy music. After Hobson’s hangover defeated his attempts at breakfast, it was the turn of Albert Prosser (Jonathan Payn) to make his advances on youngest daughter Alice (Victoria Marr). And who could blame Payn for attempting to sweep the delectable Marr off her feet. But Maggie saw him off as well – after extracting the money from him for a new pair of boots!
Hobson had at least one satisfied customer, a Mrs Hepworth (Marion Tait) who was next to come into the shop. Her latest purchase was so comfortable ser latest he wanted to make herself known to the craftsman who had made them. This was Will Mossop (Robert Parker) who bemusedly emerged from the basement workroom hatch to receive the deserved praise and, significantly, her calling card. Next, Hobson made it clear that all his daughters could forget any prospect of marriage: the risk to his comfort zone was too great. But this did not deter Prosser and Beenstock who returned, and their sincerity was not lost on Maggie; the strings under Robert Gibbs wistfully echoed her loneliness. Where was her man to come from? Will surfaced via the hatch with workbasket to perform a mime with the shoes from his daily toil; his solo dance included Reade’s version of a clog dance, all secretly watched from the stairs by Maggie. Parker’s antics with footwear and chair captured the hearts of Maggie and Hippodrome audience alike. With steely determination Maggie decided that here was the man who would make her a worthwhile partner. The pas de deux of Willis and Parker was magical, suggestive of the social class divide between boot-hand and mistress of the house, the focal point of the original play. The romanticism of Reade’s score fitted snugly with Maggie’s ‘Marry me and I can give you the world’ gesture, but she would have to wait for any kiss from the naive Will.
The BRB corps de ballet displayed all the delights of a Sunday afternoon in Peel Park as Will arrived to begin walking out with Maggie in Act II. The mill workers of Lancashire were there in force to court their loved ones, play cricket, protest against the demon drink (although the temperance banner-wavers had patently failed to influence Henry Hobson) sail their yachts and relax to the music of the local brass band. And how well the brass of the Royal Ballet Sinfonia portrayed the setting (pairing Rastrick with Brighouse?). The forward Maggie was making all the moves on her ever bashful Will, though reaching her goal was not going to be easy; her hoighty-toighty pair of sisters were clearly scandalized that a Hobson should be associating with one of their hired employees. The ensemble number danced by the Salvation Army was a wonderful mixture of grace, solemnity and joyful hallelujahs complete with tambourines:. Donning the bonnets were Laëtitia Lo Sardo, Angela Paul and Nao Sakuma, while Joseph Caley, Tzu-Chao Chou and Tyrone Singleton sported the caps. Maggie’s education of Will continued unsuccessfully with some waltz lessons, before once more being denied lip contact as the park gates closed.
The plot moved on as Hobson heard of Maggie’s intentions, but taking a belt to Will only served to bring a air of resolve to the boot-hand, galvanising him into some positive action. Maggie got her kiss (albeit a demonstrative rather than one of passion) and off the unlikely couple went to borrow some money from Mrs Hepworth and start their own cobbling business in Oldfield Road. With Maggie gone, Hobson’s drinking got worse, culminating in him falling down Beenstock’s cellar trap.
Hobson eventually came out of his stupor next morning in Act III. The shrewd Maggie now saw this as the first step in an opportunity to resolve the family problems – by having lawyer Prosser serve a writ on her father for trespass and damages. Meanwhile the Mossop business had blossomed and the proprietors were to be hitched. Will had what passed for a stag-do, appropriately a highly entertaining clog dance with four of his mates, one comically dressed as a bride. The happy couple took their vows with a nod in the presence of Alice, Vickey and their boyfriends, the simple wedding bouquet finishing up in the stalls. The six returned for a modest wedding breakfast in the Mossop living room cum workshop. This scene was, as ever with this ballet most memorable – a veritable triumph of choreography and music for Bintley and Reade. As the ladies began to lay the table, the gents celebrated to a foot-tapping Reade tune – an energetic threesome led by the groom. This infectious mood induced Alice and Vickey to join in, but Maggie insisted on the usual formalities with each in their proper place ready for the best man to toast the happy couple – with cups of tea!
Their wedded state now began to upset Vickey. How can her predicament and Alice’s be resolved? Beenstock attempted to alleviate the situation by playing on the piano, but his ‘Moonlight Sonata’ only made things worse. Prosser took to the keys, striking up with Lily of Laguna. Harking back to the dance lesson in the park, it was now Will’s turn to lead Maggie, and how well Parker and Willis took the floor. It was smiles all round on stage and with audience alike with a few near me mouthing the words rather than singing them out loud as has sometimes been the case at this point. Hobson arrived; the guests hid leaving Will and Maggie to deal with father. The newly-weds agreed to help with his problems if he consented to the marriages of Vickey and Alice. Finally alone Will was intent upon siding the table, but Maggie had other things on her mind. The orchestra raised the amorous stakes in the music for another pas de deux with an alluring Willis endeavouring to relax a once-again nervous Parker. After another embarrassing moment for Will and his trousers, Maggie dragged him by the ear into the bedroom.
Months later, Hobson’s alcohol and financial problems had got worse. His escapades with his drinking partners (including that natural character-dancer Rory Mackay) led to hallucinatory effects. Later the combined presence of doctor, bailiffs and family resulted in Will and Maggie taking over both home and shop; the signboard now said ‘Mossop and Hobson’.
If Hobson’s Choice were the only ballet in BRB’s 2011/12 season, then the Reade/Bintley creation could never disappoint. Long may it be revived! But, of course, it is just one of many options on offer from BRB and their programme continues on Feb 29th with an appetising double bill of Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe and Messager’s The Two Pigeons. I hope the pigeons behave themselves!