This week has seen the end of David Bintley’s time as director of Birmingham Royal Ballet, marked by a short run of one of his most popular works, Hobson’s Choice. I spent some of the evening reflecting on what ever made him choose this down-to-earth, comedic story of drunkenness, class anxiety and romance for a ballet – but it’s inspired, though unlikely. It’s based on an early twentieth-century play by Harold Brighouse, perhaps more famous because of the 1954 film. The plot begins with drunken bootmaker, Henry Hobson, whose three daughters provide cheap labour, and so he wants to prevent them marrying. The two younger ones already have suitors, and the eldest, Maggie, decides she needs to get married too, and persuades boot boy Will Mossop to take her on. What ensues is a story of come-uppances, slap-stick and, eventually, happy endings (perhaps not so much for Henry Hobson).
I was really impressed with how beautifully this was translated to ballet. The music, by Paul Reade, is catchy, infectious and perfect for the plot as well as the dancing, creating just the right atmosphere. The costumes, too, are marvellous – late nineteenth-century, creating individuality for each character but in a harmonious whole. (Some of the costumes in Act II rather reminded me – in a good way – of those in the Judy Garland film Meet Me in St Louis!) The period setting is beautifully done, as were the publicity photographs taken in Birmingham’s Victorian arcades.
Maggie (Samara Downs) exudes brisk, flat-footed competence as she marches across the stage, often taking someone with her; we both sympathise with her as put-upon eldest child, and cheer for her as she organises her way into a better life. Yet in the pas de deux at the end of Act I, we also sense a growing romance and a softer side to the character. This is a ballet, more than many or even most, where character really matters, and the dancer must put on a performance that is about acting as much as it is about steps. Jonathan Payn as Hobson does a great job of acting/dancing drunk, which must be both incredibly difficult and also quite hilarious to do; and Lachlan Monaghan as Will Mossop moves from slightly bemused underling to man of business beautifully, demonstrating the character’s trajectory across the performance, as well as doing a fabulously funny tap dance in Act I.
Delia Mathews and Laura Purkiss are appealingly flirtatious and entertaining as Alice and Vickey Hobson, Maggie’s sisters, and amiably partnered by Mathias Dingman as Fred Beenstock and Rory Mackay as Albert Prosser; it was also lovely to see Marion Tait, stately as Mrs Hepworth. The innate comedy of men in frock coats and top hats doing ballet is played up effectively throughout. The scenery and designs by Hayden Griffin really add a lot to the performance, especially the multi-layered screens of Peel Park, where we are treated to a dance by the Salvation Army (can’t think of any other ballets featuring them!) and the business-like atmosphere of the shop, the cosy atmosphere of the gloomy basement where Maggie and Will live after their marriage, are conjured perfectly.
The ballet exudes humour and exuberance, a real crowd-pleaser that it’s impossible not to smile through; this is a light-hearted ballet that doesn’t take itself too seriously whilst taking the business of performing and entertaining very seriously indeed – a perfect balance, which had the audience laughing and even singing along to the ‘Lily of Laguna’. First performed in 1989, this is a wonderfully non-traditional ballet classic that is becoming part of the canon.