Monday, 18 June 2018

My Year in Books 2018: May

Okay, so May was a pretty hectic month. I read quite a lot of stuff for work, but didn't really get chance to read much for pleasure. So embarrassingly, there's only one book on my list for May. I'm still trying to stick to my resolution, though, so here's a review anywhere.

In case you missed them, here are my posts from months when I did better: January, February, March and April.

The Lake District Murder by John Bude (1935)

I love the British Library Crime Classics series, and I’m building up quite a collection of them – mostly thanks to my mother-in-law, who’s bought me loads of titles for birthdays and Christmas (and a couple that she’s picked up second-hand too!). I read John Bude’s The Cornish Coast Murder last Christmas (when we were staying in Cornwall), so I was looking forward to this one. Bude’s novels are a bit unusual for Golden Age detective fiction, as they tend more towards the ‘police procedural’ side of things. Cornish Coast combines this with a bit of amateur sleuthing by other characters, but Lake District goes the whole hog and just focuses on the police investigation. A garage owner is found dead in his car, apparently having taken his own life. Inspector Meredith suspects there’s more to it, and he launches a meticulously thorough investigation to get to the bottom of things. But everything he uncovers leads to a further puzzle. Police procedurals aren’t my favourite – I’m more of a whodunnit type of person – but, as is usually the case with the BL’s Crime Classics, you get so swept away with the atmosphere and scenery that you can forgive a slightly dull plot (this one has a lot of talk of garages and petrol deliveries)! Bude’s novel is set in one of my favourite places in the world, and there’s something quite compelling about watching the dogged Inspector Meredith zooming round Cumbria on his motorcycle, before heading home for a cold-cut lunch.

I'll try and have more books to talk about next month!

Friday, 15 June 2018

Review: Hobson’s Choice (Salford Theatre Company)

Friday 8th June 2018
Salford Arts Theatre

Hobson’s Choice was written by Harold Brighouse in 1916. Set in Salford in the 1880s, the play is about bootmaker Henry Hobson and his three daughters, Maggie, Alice and Vickey. This new production by Salford Theatre Company is on at the Salford Arts Theatre from 6th to 23rd June.

It’s fairly standard to see reviews of Hobson’s Choice stating that the play was ‘shocking’ in its day, both for its depiction of female characters and its side-swipe at snobbishness and a rigid class system. Undoubtedly, there are unexpected elements – Maggie’s coercing/bullying Will Mossop into marriage on the grounds of ‘good business sense’, Hobson’s pathetic diatribe on the uppishness of women and the value of the British middle class – but I’m not convinced that these would have been scandalous in 1916.

Maggie Hobson/Mossop is certainly a character who defies feminine stereotypes and behaves in an unconventional way. At 30, she is ‘old’ (a fact that her father points out on a number of occasions), and she rejects romance for sensible business practice. She demands Hobson’s meek boothand Will Mossop marries her, sending away poor Ada Figgins (Will’s erstwhile fiancĂ©e) with a flea in her ear, and then effectively puts her own father out of business. But while Maggie doesn’t conform to the stereotype of the polite young lady, she certainly embodies another stereotype – the northern battle-axe. Hobson’s Choice isn’t so much shocking as it is proper northern. Perhaps Maggie would have been seen as an outrageous character if Brighouse had set his play in that London, but she seems perfectly at home in Salford.

The Salford Theatre Company’s production presents Brighouse’s play ‘as is’, i.e. without any attempt to update the material. Their version is a period piece set in 1880 – as the play was always intended to be (being set over 30 years earlier than it was written). Any attempt to modernize Hobson’s Choice or ‘make it relevant’ would only obscure the play’s comical balance of affectionate nostalgia and modernizing desire.

This balance is struck in the Salford Theatre Company’s production quite simply through staging and performance. The period features are there, but not overdone. The sets feel like 1880, but aren’t meticulous or overdressed. The performances aren’t overstated or mannered.

Stand-out performances are Scott Berry as Henry Hobson and Lyndsay Fielding as Maggie. Inevitably, productions of Hobson’s Choice encourage comparisons with David Lean’s 1954 film version – indeed, I heard people in the bar before the show talking about Lean’s film – but Berry and Fielding offered very different performances to those of Charles Laughton and Brenda de Banzie.

Fielding’s Maggie is believable as a not-quite-old-maid with a good business head on her shoulders. No-nonsense and shrewd, rather than bossy and bitter, this Maggie is easy to root for and more three-dimensional than some other portrayals of the character. It’s quite easy to see why Will Mossop quickly comes round to the idea that she’s the woman for him (making the final scenes with the couple all the more enjoyable).

Berry is excellent as Hobson. He avoids a bombastic, larger-than-life performance in favour of a more personable, sympathetic portrayal. Berry’s Hobson is a small man, shrinking back into his outdated beliefs in an attempt to fight off the inevitable. Even his most well-known speech (on the ‘uppishness’ of women) is deflated – as though he already knows he’s on a losing streak. It’s a relief to know he has a daughter (and son-in-law) who can take care of him at the end.

Of the other performances, Elka Lee-Green and Connie James are enjoyable as Alice and Vickey – keeping up a comical array of facial expressions whenever the other characters were talking. Joseph Walsh is likable as Willie Mossop, handling the transition from hapless boothand to confident small businessman well. The warmth that develops between Will and Maggie is convincing and satisfying.

It’s always nice to watch a production of Hobson’s Choice on its home turf. The local references (like Willie’s lines about the metaphorical distance from Oldfield Road to Chapel Street to St Ann’s Square) still make you smile, and Hobson and his daughters haven’t lost their Salfordian charm.

Hobson’s Choice is on at Salford Arts Theatre until 23rd June.