17 JANUARY 1964, Page 18

National Shopkeeping

By DAVID PRYCE-JONES Hobson's Choice.(National Theatre.)—The Life in My Hands. (Nottingham Playhouse.)—The Wars of the Roses. (Aldwych.) —Poor Bitos. (Duke of York's.)

WRITTEN at the beginning of the First World War, Hobson's Choice was set some thirty years earlier; as the author wrote in his autobiography, 'its clothes of 1880 had something to do with saving it from evanescence.' Not that it is a period piece, but that like some formal picture it has captured its surroundings because painted at some distance. It is saved by its art, and this art is comic. The result is something modest and true, two underpraised attributes.

Hobson tyrannises his three daughters. Maggie, the eldest, leads the revolt by peremptorily marry- ing Willie Mossop, the best bootmaker in her father's shop, and they set up their rival business. The other daughters are provided with their clas- sier husbands, and when Hobson falls ill from too many nights at the Moonrakers only Maggie will return to look after him. But by now she has taught Willie a trick or two, and he lays down his conditions to the old man. The shop is taken over as Mossop and Hobson; a partnership of bullies. There are contrivances for the sake of the story; for instance, the rich Mrs. Hepworth makes a brief entry to buy a pair of shoes, and later we learn that Willie Mossop's craftsman- ship is so essential to her that she has provided him with the capital to set up his shop. The younger daughters are matched with husbands only so that the relationship of Maggie and her father can evolve. But since these are not affec- tations, we are left with time passing, an old man weakening and a new man growing, people changing, and what might have been a minute piece of local sociology has a larger existence.

In Maggie Joan Plowright has found a natural part, and 1 do not remember thinking this since I saw her in The Country Wife. She has scope for her astringent, compact way of moving and speaking, and lines which suit the never quite controlled comic expression of her face. She looks as if she is going to laugh at herself, while highhandedly taking decisions for everybody. In Frank Finlay's Mossop she has the perfect foil. They both developed, understanding what is hap- pening as they go along in a way which infuses an exact personality into comedy which would be low-toned without it. Michael Redgrave, a trifle Falstaffian, appeared by contrast hesitant. The set is authentic, the production is unaccen- tuated, and leaves the work to the actors. The National Theatre has shown that it can be brash: it can also be delicate.

Why is it that some corny things are enjoyable and not others? It can hardly be the presentation, because this is almost the corniest aspect of Peter Ustinov's new play. The narrator Arthur Long is a journalist in a crumpled raincoat which he never takes off and who smokes three filtered packets of cigarettes a day. In case the words 'hard-bitten' and 'cynical' had not come to mind, they whizz about the stage. Arthur tells us how he gets involved in pressing for the reprieve of a young man condemned to death after raping a mentally deficient girl who has subsequently died. Behind him the stage revolves to show us the editorial office, the Minister's drawing-room and Arthur's own home, the scenes where he fights out his private and public battles. Some hazy photo- graphs projected on a screen add local distraction.

It all depends on the Minister, ambitious, with no human qualities, sense of duty and stomach; about as subtle a character drawing as, say, Little Red Riding Hood's wolf. Leo McKern manages to bark more out of the part than it has. There is a dim wife who wrings her hands, or raises them to her eyes as she runs from left to right to cry, 'Oh for God's sake, reprieve the man.' Their son John, splendid undergraduate, cavalry twill and suede jacket, comes to argue with his father about the reprieve and when he fails on a humani- tarian approach, confesses that he too has raped a girl. And for that matter, he has found out that he was conceived in rather louche circumstances in a cheap hotel after his parents had just met at a military ball. Poor Ian McKellen is made either to square his chin, or else plead crouching and kneeling on the floor. Getting down to their level? He fails, the condemned man is executed and driving back to his college John is killed in a smash. The Minister changes his attitude, re- prieves the next murderer and completes the circle of melodramatic coincidence.

If conviction lay behind this play, the cliches have stifled it. It comes out as a superior, jollier thriller. It is superior because nothing can quite • conceal the Ustinov exuberance and one gets the strong and contradictory impression of tongues in cheek. Once or twice too, the language gets off the ground, as when the son tries to imagine what it was like when his mother was seduced. (Medals and braid are important in the Ustinov landscape.) It is as if this play was written be- cause the times, the box office and audience that is, ask for it, and so it has been thrown down like a bone. Comedy lies buried under it, and an imaginative language, but the talent is compro- mised by the need for a 'serious subject.' The ex- pectation that Ustinov will take the clamps off is at the root of any enjoyment of this old mash.

Seeing The Wars of the Roses through in one day is a tiring experience, but very satisfying. As in Parsifal, the attention wanders for the odd quarter of an hour, only to return with some use- ful thought such as history has a pattern, or is nothing but a pageant. At all times there is some- thing here to look at, and John Bury's sets and clothes are as much responsible for the success as anything else, although the smaller Aldwych stage makes for cramp and some technical hitches, which will no doubt disappear.

One or two additional touches of production are improvements, particularly the use of the microphone echo for Henry VI's scene at Tow- ton with the two men who have killed their son and father, and again for the ghost scene before Bosworth. The acting has an overall high stan- dard which is rare. Peggy Ashcroft is memor- able both in success and defeat, while David Warner as her king is moving in his humility. I have some reservations now about Ian Holm's Richard, for his simper and half-giggle have be- come too matter-of-fact, but it certainly gets away from the Olivier mould. The final duel in which Richard dies in the smoky penumbra is all the more thrilling at the end of a long day.

Another play which is still as impressive after transfer is Poor Bitos. It is both passionate and scrupulous, which is the opposite of cut-and-dried- Anouilh shows a real contempt for power-

wielders, whether on the right or left, and for their underlings who obey orders just because they are orders. Its most savage scene is a dia- logue in which two turnkeys complain about all those boring massacres on hot afternoons, and priests with split heads who still try to throttle a man. The tension of the play lies in the skill with which it shows the approaches to authori- tarianism. The decadent aristocrats and the self- made magistrate Bitos share the same sentiments at bottom and all that distinguishes them is the starting-point of their ambitions and the use they make of language. Their ends are power, their means the humiliation of each other. Bitos is saved by a girl who betrays her friends, making this unavoidably clear to Bitos: he can be any- thing except an aristocrat, for which he • will never forgive them. The theatrical trick of cast- ing this largely in the form of a charade of the French Revolution adds to the nervous excite- ment, and in this production the revised ending of the first act is a smoother, more plausible transition from the present to the past.

Donald Pleasence gives a virtuoso perform- ance as Bitos, with all the integrity and impossi- bility of the bitter purist which Robespierre was. Charles Gray as his present-day enemy, but ironically St. Just in the charade, is bland and sinister. It helps to know the rudimentary out- lines of the French Revolution but it is more important to be able to listen, for this play is tight, accurate and to the point.