Below waving trees, rustling in the breeze, Hobson’s boot merchant is a sturdy red brick outfit. In this open-air production of Harold Brighouse’s play, a bright 1960s setting upends the 1880s nostalgia of the original as surely as platform and patent fashions would demolish this shop’s dour products. Bringing out the text’s wish-fulfilment feminism in a rush of technicolour energy, it’s a hugely satisfying reversal.
Director Nadia Fall was a surprising choice – this neatly-plotted drama of trades and swaps couldn’t be much further from her work on Michaela Coel’s monologue on Hackney schoolgirldom, Chewing Gum Dreams. The play opens with a blast of song, as three minidressed sisters and their assorted squeezes dance and sing “How do you do what you do to me,” courtesy of cheery Merseybeat outfit Gerry & The Pacemakers. Their breezy proto-sexual liberation is put a stop to by their father and family patriarch Henry Hobson, who doesn’t want anyone to do anything to anyone else, thank you very much. Unless it’s fitting people for sturdy and decidedly unswinging traditional boots or ringing them through the till, which is what he sees as his daughters’ primary purpose in life.
He’s more than happy to lay down the law in the safety of his own bootshop and family business, but outside its glass windows he’s at the mercy of the quasi-supernatural force that is ‘The Moonraker’s Arms’ – the pub where his masonic friends plant the idea that he should marry off his daughters. The eldest, Maggie, is too old or too useful to go, but he starts to plan for the younger two – only to abruptly change his mind when he realises he’ll have to pay a marriage portion. But he’s incensed by Maggie’s equally sudden and defiant courtship of her father’s star bootmaker Willie Mossop. The story turns into a mundane kind of King Lear, as Henry Hobson accelerates his drinking habits, storms around the wasteland of his deserted shop and laments the ingratitude of his thankless child. Meanwhile, she’s set up a far more successful bootmaking outfit, and is busily poaching his customers.
Brighouse’s play has a kind of fairytale motion to it, built on the see-saw swings of fortune and Maggie’s considerable ingenuity. Jodie McNee’s warm performance is redoubtable enough to make Maggie likeable and convincing as a miracle-working fairy godmother both to her sisters and to herself. Opposite her, Mark Benton’s broad bombast conceals a touch of senility – but Henry’s rages too terrible to make him a completely negligible adversary. Fall signals his entrances with surprisingly soulful bursts of “That’s Life” from Benton. The song’s message of picking yourself off the ground couldn’t be more at odds with his whisky-drenched fatalism, which she emphasises by his grotesque vomiting bouts and trouserless morning lethargy. There’s more darkness down in the cellar, where the grim conditions his boots are manufactured in are just barely hinted at by Willie’s cowering, blinking first appearances onto the polished glare of the shop floor.
But just as Maggie turns her cellar home into a palace of making do, there’s a cheery touch of musical-theatre about this production of a rather workmanlike play, with its bright costumes and broad or shrill performances. Its Northern town is as storied and vague as British manufacturing in Kinky Boots, and its shoes could be made by elves as much as people. Still, as a proto-feminist fairytale, it shines.