June 19, 2019
If you had to pick a ballet to mark the end of David Bintley’s time as director of Birmingham Royal Ballet, it would be difficult to come up with anything better than Hobson’s Choice, one of his earliest, and as he freely admits, and happiest creations.
The heart-warming northern tale of stubborn, domineering Henry Hobson and his daughter Maggie’s love for bootmaker Will Mossop connects in a way fairy tale ballets never can. Bintley and the Birmingham dancers convince that we are watching real people.
If there is a role made for Samara Downs, it is surely Maggie. Stern-faced, prim and proper, but more than anything practical and down-to-earth, here is one determined woman. But equally, it’s a joy to watch her slowly melt as she finds herself falling for Will.
But as good as Downs was, this was Lachlan Monaghan’s night. There is something about his toothy smile. His characterisation and expression as Will moves from shy, awkward cobbler living in the bowels of the shop through bashful suitor to confident husband, was near perfect. He was irrepressible. His dancing sparkled too; as deft and easy as you could wish for. Over the years, Michael O’Hare and Robert Parker in particular have made the role their own. It speaks volumes for Monaghan that my mind never once went wandering down memory lane.
The supporting cast were on good form too. Laura Purkiss and Delia Matthews were a delight as the self-centred Vickey and Alice, Henry Hobson’s younger daughters. Mathias Dingman was excellent as the slightly priggish Fred Beanstock, although I particularly enjoyed Rory Mackay’s interpretation of Albert Prosser, suitor to Alice. Humour in ballet can be tricky to get right, but he found just the right spot as he attempted to be the Edwardian equivalent of cool; failing dismally.
Initially, I found Jonathan Payn’s Henry too over the top. It felt like he was playing for laughs rather than letting them come out of the situation. But I warmed to the portrayal much more as the evening went on.
The list of super male characters goes on. They get lots of great dance too. Will, Fred and Albert frequently come together as a trio, and let’s not forget too Henry’s drinking companions, Jim Heeler, Sam Minns and Mr Tudsbury (Kit Holder, James Barton and Tom Rogers).
Special mention too for the Salvation Army trio of Yasuo Atsuji, Tzu-chao Chou and Tyrone Singleton, who pulled off their series of double tours with aplomb. They, and the ladies led by Momoko Hirata, may have been campaigning to “drive out the demon drink” but there was no sense of abstinence or holding back in their dancing. It really is a veritable feast.
The music for the scene in the park reminds us what a talent composer Paul Reade was. That waltz would more than hold its own in any concert. He had a special ability to evoke colour and atmosphere, time and place, he drawing particularly on folk influences and traditional northern brass. Popular tunes too, none more so than Lily of Laguna, to which Maggie and Will dance one of the best duets Bintley have ever made, and to which many in the audience sang along to, something of a Birmingham tradition. It’s a magical moment.
Then there’s Hayden Griffin’s handsome period sets and costumes. How unfortunate it was that the whole creative team would only be reunited for one further ballet, Far From the Madding Crowd (another of Bintley’s best), before Reade’s early death from lymphoma, aged just 54. What else might have been, I can only wonder.