Harold Brighouse’s Hobson ’s Choice was turned down by all the London theatre managers, who were automatically prejudiced against regional writers, and it wasn’t staged in the West End until 1916 and only then because of its success in New York in 1915.
Lancashire-born Brighouse (1882-1958) set his classic comedy in Salford in the 1880s, when unmarried women of 30 were thought to be old maids. Maggie Hobson, who works in her father’s shoe shop, decides that, if she is not to remain a spinster, she will have to marry Willie Mossop, her father’s master bootmaker. With her brains and his hands, she reckons they would make an unbeatable commercial team. The bossy Maggie, used to getting her own way, proposes – one of theatre’s great comic love scenes – and Mossop finds he is engaged to be married, despite his protests. David Lean made a memorable film version in 1954 with Charles Laughton, John Mills and Brenda de Banzie.
David Bintley’s adaptation for Birmingham Royal Ballet was premiered in 1989 and has been delighting audiences ever since with its attractive performances and its witty and affectionate references to Lily of Laguna, Ten Green Bottles, Salvation Army brass bands and clog dancing. Eeby-gum, it’s the perfect show for the whole family. The initial relationship between Maggie and Willie is beautifully captured in the way that the talented Robert Parker so awkwardly partners Isabel McKeekan. Parker’s charm fills the theatre. Albert Prosser is very funny as a lanky solicitor. The only weakness is the casting of the bullying, alcoholic father, a pale carbon copy of the film’s coarse music hall interpretation.
The BRB’s programme at Sadler’s Wells also included a historic triple bill. Kenneth Macmillan described his wistful Solitaire, which was premiered in 1956 and set to music by Malcolm Arnold, as “a kind of game for one”. A sweet, innocent young girl (Viktoria Walton), yearning for friendship, dreams of having fun. Her imagined playmates, made up to look like clowns, sometimes let her play with them and sometimes they don’t. Either way, she always ends up alone.
No knowledge of chess is needed to enjoy Nina de Valois’s Checkmate. Premiered in Paris in 1937, it is a dramatic, emblematic piece, danced to a score by Arthur Bliss. The Red Knight (James Grundy) leaps into the fray to defend the feeble old Red King but then, torn between love and duty, he hesitates to kill the Black Queen (Nao Sakuma) and is killed by her, leaving the king (Jonathan Payn) to be struck down, impaled on staves. His death is prophetic of the war to come and a metaphor for Europe’s forthcoming fate.
John Cranko’s The Lady and the Fool, which was premiered in 1954, is a sentimental piece in a surprisingly vulgar setting, danced to music by Verdi. A famous
society beauty (Elisha Willis), who hides her face behind a series of masks, is courted by three rich suitors, but she prefers a ménage à trois with a tramp and his boyfriend. The inventive fight between the two tramps over a rose is comically sustained by Robert Parker and Kosuke Yamamoto.
Paris Opera Ballet, one of the great companies, which had not been to London in 22 years, also came to Sadler’s Wells, bringing Angelin Preljocaj’s Le Parc, a fulllength work, created in 1994 and inspired by Mme de la Fayette’s La Princesse de Cleves and Choderlos de Lacolos’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses. In the 17th and 18th century they had to lock up the parks (and the churches) at night to stop couples having sex in them; but, since practically everybody had keys, the locks were ineffective.
Preljocaj’s choreography, to a score by Mozart, is a series of manoeuvres, games, running around and peeking round pillars until, finally, one couple in period underwear have congress. Each section went on far too long and in far too repetitive a manner. The giggling, swooning ladies in gorgeous costumes were a rococo delight, just waiting to be painted by Fragonard.
The dancers, who made the most impression, were a sinister, robotic quartet in dark glasses, who moved to an electronic score and were said to be cupids but looked like mafiosi.