“Do you call this English?…I thought it weren’t the sort we talk in Lancashire”
Though Wigan is nearer to my childhood home, it is the Octagon in Bolton that looms largest in the memory as the theatre we visited most often, particularly for their Christmas shows, school trips and my first ever Macbeth. Yet since leaving for university and latterly becoming a theatre blogger, I haven’t made a return trip there (possibly in 18 years or so) and so when circumstances prevailed to get me nearby, I decided to make a nostalgic visit.
And given that the play was Harold Brighouse’s Hobson’s Choice, there was something delightfully old-school about the whole thing. David Thacker’s production, co-produced with Newcastle-Under-Lyme’s New Vic and the Oldham Coliseum, beats to a slow and steady rhythm over its three acts and once attuned to its pace, I found it to be a highly enjoyable piece of traditional story-telling.
Set in a boot shop in Salford owned by widower and father-of-three-daughters Hobson, Brighouse’s comic drama is a slice of northern life packed full of life lessons for those who are too proud and materialistic and rewards for those who knuckle down and get on with the job. There’s also evidence of the archetypal indomitable northern female, an accident of scheduling strongly suggesting that A Taste of Honey could take place just two streets down from here.
A firm concentration on character ensured that even as things were going slowly, the level of engagement was strong – so Natalie Grady’s trail-blazing Maggie feels fully rounded as she manoeuvres control of the shop into her hands from Maxwell Hutcheon’s irritable father, himself developing as the play proceeds, his fallibility a most moving thing by the end.
And as the man Maggie identifies as her husband-and-saviour-of-the-business-to-be, Michael Shelford forms a fantastic partnership with Grady, demonstrating that love isn’t always something immediately explosive. I don’t know for sure when I’ll be back at the Octagon but I do hope I don’t leave it for another 18 years – on this evidence, I surely won’t.