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Paul READE (1943-1997)
Hobson’s Choice – ballet (1989)
Henry Hobson - Desmond Kelly
Maggie Hobson - Karen Donovan
Vickey Hobson - Sandra Madgwick
Alice Hobson - Chenca Williams
Mrs Hepworth - Anita Landa
Will Mossop - Michael O’Hare
The Suitors - Joseph Cipolla, Stephen Wicks
Birmingham Royal Ballet and Orchestra/Barry Wordsworth
David Bintley (choreographer)
Rec. 1992 (Studio recording)
Sound: PCM Stereo; Picture: 4:3; Region: 2,5; DVD9/PAL
ARTHAUS-MUSIC 100 442 [101:00]


By any standards of classical ‘character’ ballet this issue is self-recommending. The production is a superb one, with relatively simple but highly effective sets, one of the best ballet orchestras around, and as lively a set of dancers as you could wish for.

The story is based on Harold Brighouse’s play of the same name, and is really quite a straightforward Victorian drama of class divisions, domestic strife, frustrated love and victory of abstention over alcoholism. Hobson is the owner of a successful boot shop in Salford, Lancashire. Either drunk or in a state of bad-tempered hangover, he treats his daughters like the stereotype ‘Victorian Dad’, refusing them permission to marry their chosen fiancées. Hobson’s apprentice, the talented but slightly dim Will Mossop is constantly bullied by his employer, but has the good fortune to have been selected by Maggie the eldest daughter as a candidate for marriage and a partnership in her own plans for a new shop. Hobson gets himself into trouble after falling into a cellar in a drunken stupor. Maggie manipulates the situation by forcing her father either to accept the sister’s marriages or to appear in court, accused of breaking into the cellar – Hobson’s Choice indeed. Hobson, now alone, is driven further in to dissolution. Mossop, now a rich and successful businessman, is prepared to help him escape bankruptcy, but only if the shop changes name to ‘Hobson & Mossop.’ Forced once again to decide, he in fact has no choice, and becomes a ‘reformed’ character.

David Bintley’s choreography follows the Sadler’s Wells tradition for opulence, running through the entire range of glorious set pieces such as the Salvation Army in the park and the truly grand finale, and elegant solo and ensemble work. His eye for detail is always open to witty social observation, and each character’s interaction and development is a joy to behold. Desmond Kelly makes an excellent Hobson, ranging from abject drunken incapacity through being the authoritarian martinet, begrudging bogeyman and ultimate repentant. The little insecurities of the lads and lasses, their deportment both in public and private through each drama and crisis are so believable and true to life that the narrative flows like a well written play. Indeed, the Sunday Times description as a ‘rollicking musical comedy without words’ is apt, if (where ballet is concerned) partially redundant. I laughed out loud on more than one occasion (and no, not at inappropriate moments) and the more intimate romantic scenes are genuinely touching.

The music by Paul Reade is classical ‘English Ballet’ fare, with quotes from well-known folk melodies woven into the fabric of the score. Richly orchestrated by Lawrence Ashmore, there are plenty of moments when the ear is teased by ‘nearly this’ or ‘almost that.’ I’m not sure that the CD shelves will be overstocked with versions of the ‘Suite from the Ballet’ but the whole thing works marvellously well with each contrasting scene.

The studio recording allows a great deal of flexibility with the camera-work, without losing the ‘stage’ feel of the production. The only moment where ‘trick’ editing seems to have been used is when Hobson is hallucinating in the churchyard, and his drinking companions appear to him as giant pink mice. I can only imagine the quick changes the stage version must have required.

The sound quality is of course beyond reproach. The orchestral playing is excellent, and I would say the whole thing is guaranteed to bring cheer to any rainy afternoon – only one of many reasons for having this DVD in your home.

Dominy Clements


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