Reluctant lothario: Robert Parker as the shy Will Mossop who is not going to escape the attentions of his wife-to-be Maggie played by Elisha Willis - picture Bill Cooper

Hobson's Choice

Birmingham Royal Ballet

Birmingham Hippodrome

*****

ACCORDING to the old adage you should never work with children or animals - and you can probably add chairs to that list in Robert Parker's case.

He came a cropper when the chair fell over as he performed his celebrated backward leap on to its seat as Will Mossop in David Bintley's lovingly told version of Harold Brighouse's 1915 play set in Salford in the 1880s.

But this is Robert Parker we are talking about and he was up in a flash, shaken not stirred as you might say, and carried on as if nothing had happened like a real trouper to give yet another sparkling and memorable performance.

Parker, who is slowly edging from principal dancer towards his new job as artistic director of  Elmshurst School for Dance, has been one of the delights of ballet for more than a decade and is always a joy to watch. He has that ability to make his dancing look easy and natural and with all the comic undertones and acting opportunities afforded by Will he is in his element.

With Elisha Willis equally superb as Henry Hobson's eldest daughter, a bit of an old maid in terms of Salford in 1880 if truth be told, the pair make a charming couple you can take to your heart.

And that is the cornerstone of the ballet because behind it all in the play, its many film adaptations and David Bintley's masterful BRB creation, is a simple love story with the unworldywise shy cobbler and the lonely spinster finding love at last providing some very funny and some very touching moments.

There is much of evidence of the influence of silent movies in the ballet, some scenes are positively Chaplinesque and at times you could be in Mary Poppins or My Fair Lady as BRB give us a tender and funny story without words.

Even the music by Paul Reade is reminiscent of the sweeping themes and soft focus melodies of the era of black and white films, beautifully played by The Royal Ballet Sinfonia under Philip Ellis.

Robert Parker was in fine form as the cobbler who makes good Will Mossop

It is not surprised then to discover that Bintley had found his inspiration in the 1954 David Lean film version starring Charles Laughton as Henry Hobson and John Mills as Will. It was a strong story, with strong easily defined characters and, most important to Bintley, according to the programme notes “it immediately conjured up in my mind images of movement.” And when it comes to turning narrative into movement, story into ballet, Bintley is up there with the best..

The ballet has remained unchanged since it first appeared in 1989 and the story is a simple one of bootmaker Henry Hobson, who spends his life either sobering up or getting drunk, and his three daughters. The youngest Vickey (Carol- Anne Millar) is being courted by Fred Beenstock (Matthew Lawrence) the wealthy son of a corn merchant while the middle daughter Alice (Victoria Marr) has fallen for young lawyer Albert Prosser (Jonathan Payn) who introduces himself by taking on a bunch of flowers and losing.  The two couples put in a wonderful performance bringing the stage to life.

Oh and then up there on the shelf we have Maggie who is courted by . . . no one (let's have a big ahhhh)

Maggie is the hard working brains of the operation, running the shop virtually singlehanded apart from Will, who it seems lives and works somewhere in the cellar turning out all the shoes and boots for sale.

Unseen by him she sees him dance in clogs he has made and falls head over heels, soles and toecaps in love so to speak for the bashful cobbler who reluctantly dances with her, pointing out the vast gulf between their social standings.

She perseveres and when Henry sobers up enough to realise what is going on he takes his belt to the young whippersnapper Will which drives Maggie – and his business away.

There is a clever marriage scene followed by a reception in Will's lowly shop and lodgings with a very funny and touching scene as Maggie tries to get her reluctant, nervous, inexperienced husband of less than a day into bed.

DISOWNED DAUGHTER

As time passes Will and Maggie's own boot business prospers while Henry is facing both sobriety and bankruptcy and eventually has no choice but to hand over the shop to Will and slip into the background in return for his former employee and disowned daughter paying off his debts.

In between we have the formation dancing team of the Salvation Army, which included Joseph Caley and Nao Sakuma among their excellent number, warning of the dangers of demon drink in a stunning park scene that would grace any musical on any stage anywhere in the world.

But despite the persuasion of the Salvationists it was the hallucinations turning his drinking buddies Kit Holder, Oliver Till and Rory Mackay into pink headed mice that turned old Henry back on to the straight and sober.

Apparently this scene baffled Hong Kong audiences where perhaps there is no tradition of pink mice and elephants, snakes coming through the walls and the general menagerie of horror that is the stock in trade in a portrayal of the sodden mind of the hardened drinking man.

It was a pleasure to see David Morse back as a guest artist playing Henry incidentally. Morse retired as BRB video archivist last year and almost immediately was seriously ill but another sparkling performance in one of his repertoire roles shows he has made a remarkable recovery.

His wife, Ballet Mistress Marion Tait, gave her usual imperious performance as Mrs Hepworth the Hobson shop's wealthiest and most important customer, who incidentally provides Will with the money he needs to start his own business.

The whole show is a visual treat from beginning to end with Hayden Griffin's solid period designs and clean, realistic and atmospheric lighting from John B. Read all adding to the production, all in wonderful authentic period costume  while the dancing could not be faulted - and what a choice of dance. There is ballroom, ballet, a little bit of jazz and those wonderful clog dances which were once a common feature in the north of England. Indeed there are still annual competitions held each year  in Lancashire and the North East.

Will Mossop says at the end “Bah gum” as he surveys his own happy ending and as ballets go you might add  “ahhh an' bah ‘eck it wurr a reet gradely neet.” Which is Lanky for a cracking evening's entertainment. To 25-02-12.

Roger Clarke

*Harold Brighouse's play about industrial life in Salford in 1880, Northern accents and all, was first produced, bizarrely, in  in New York and what they made of  trouble at' mill, or at least at' cobblers is lost in history.

The reason was that fellow Mancunian Ben Iden Payne, who had produced his earlier plays and was a great supporter of Brighouse, was working there at the time. It moved to London a year later to huge success.

And the boot on the other foot . . .

*****

IT'S rare to hear a word spoken in a ballet, but when when Robert Parker glances around the Lancashire boot business he has married into and is about to take over, he puffs out his chest, front of stage, and gasps: "Bah Gum".

Many in the audience felt just like that as they headed for home after seeing the Birmingham Royal Ballet perform this version of Harold Brighouse's classic tale, beautifully choreographed by David Bintley.

Parker plays the lowly boot hand Will Mossop whose skill in making footwear pulls in quality customers for hard-drinking Henry Hobson's shop. But when his spinster daughter Maggie - the brains behind the business - decides to marry the shy employee, angry Henry takes his belt to him.

However, Maggie, beautifully acted and danced by Elisha Willis, knows the potential of Will despite the social divide and cleverly proceeds to get her own way, even though the unlikely couple have to set up their own shop in opposition in order to reach their goal.

HEAD OVER HEELS

Although Parker wasn't supposed to fall head-over-heels in love with his boss, he went pretty close on opening night when he hopped onto a chair, flipped backwards and crashed on the stage...fortunately avoiding injury and able to continue dancing brilliantly.

As a teenager, BRB director Bintley loved the old black-and-white film starring Charles Laughton and John Mills, and when he saw it again years later he thought: "There's a ballet in this", and with the help of composer Paul Read, brought it to the stage.

Unusually Bintley hasn't revised the ballet since creating it nearly a quarter of a century ago. Why mend something that's not broke, as the saying goes.

There are some beautiful scenes, particularly one in a park, featuring dancing Salvationists, and another with clog dancers.

David Morse is excellent as the drunken Hobson, and there are outstanding performances from Carol-Anne Millar and Victoria Marr, the shop-owner's other daughters, Vickey and Alice.

Music is provided by the Royal Ballet Sinfonia conducted by Philip Ellis. To 25.02.12

Paul Marston

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