Hobson’s Choice at the Theatre Royal Bath from Wednesday 24th February to Saturday 5th March

The Adver weighs up the pros and cons of Hobson's Choice with Judge John Deed actor Martin Shaw

How would you describe Henry Hobson?

He’s a man trapped in his time and in his culture. You have to remember that this is Salford in 1880 so society was pretty rigid in its beliefs, the poor were always with us, the middle class were always with us, the rich were always with us and there was no movement between the strata of society. Henry Horatio Hobson was lucky enough to have been a very successful businessman within his field. He was very proud of the fact he’d risen from being an apprentice boot-maker to becoming a master boot-maker to becoming proprietor of his own shop. There’s also that Northern thing of the man being the master of the house but it was a struggle because he’d married a very strong woman and he had some very strong-willed daughters. It’s similar to King Lear.

What’s the common ground between you and him?

[Laughs] Nothing. Absolutely nothing. It’s not so much to say that I’m necessarily that much more evolved than Hobson, although I’d like to think that I am, it’s just that I live in a different time. People are conditioned by their time and their environment.

How is it working with Christopher Timothy, who plays Jim Heeler?

It’s brilliant. We’ve known of each other for years obviously because we’ve worked in parallel as it were for years and years, but this is the first time we’ve actually worked together – and it’s lovely. We reminisce a lot about the old days and we have a lot of people and places in common. There’s a lot of late-middle-age stories going about. Chris is a little bit older than me but we are virtually contemporaries.

The original British production of the play dates back to 1916. Why do you think it has endured?

It’s brilliantly written – that’s the main thing. The dialogue is beautifully written and it’s also perfectly constructed. One of the things the director Jonathan Church said to me when we first started working on it a few months back was that with most plays he does he has to spend some sort of energy in deciding how to make it work. But this play just works itself because it is so beautifully constructed rhythmically and each scene leads on to the next one. The actual shape of the whole thing is perfect and it’s a joy for the actors as well. It’s certainly a joy for me because it’s so beautifully written.

Were you familiar with the play or performed in it before this production?

Yes and yes. I’ve admired Hobson’s Choice ever since I first saw it, which was the National Theatre production at the Old Vic in 1964 with Colin Blakely, Billie Whitelaw and Frank Finlay. I was just struck by how wonderful the performances were and completely entranced by the play. I was just starting drama school myself at the time, at LAMDA, then subsequently I did the play in rep and played one of the young characters, Albert Prosser. Then a few years later I played another of the parts, Will Mossop. Always I had at the back of my mind that one day I was going to be old enough and mature enough to play Hobson himself and here we are. It’s actually an ambition that I’ve held since 1964 because I’ve always loved the play.

How does it resonate for modern audiences?

I think the problems of parents and children – how to bring up children, what to do when children have minds of their own – haven’t changed. They are human problems, whether you live in a cave or in a palace. Human problems are all basically related and this is just such a charming story. It’s also funny but you wouldn’t say it was a comedy. It’s got some very sad elements to it but you wouldn’t call it a tragedy either. It’s just a beautifully balanced slice of human life and it’s also an historical document now because it’s about the industrial revolution and how things were in the 1880s, and it was written by a man who had been alive in the 1880s even though it wasn’t first performed until the following century.

What are the biggest challenges for you as an actor?

Every part produces challenges and this is a challenge for me because I think it’s probably the first time that I’ve played an ailing fat man. I’m putting on a very large body padding because thank God I’m still pretty slim. Hobson, being an alcoholic and a man of his time who was not in any way abstemious, requires me to be fat. I need to be a big, bulky man who is drunk most of the time – or a lot of the time. I’m wearing a fat suit which goes from the knee to the elbow, so it’s pretty much a full body suit with several pounds of birdseed in a large pouch underneath it.

So you’re not doing a Robert De Niro and piling on the weight for real?

[Laughs] No, I’m not doing that. I have the rest of my career to think about, not to mention my health. But I’ve done the fat suit thing several times before; I did it when I was in Other People’s Money in the West End years ago and I did it when I played Elvis Presley in Are You Lonesome Tonight? Then more recently I did it again when I was in the Oscar Wilde play An Ideal Husband when I wanted the character to look like Oscar Wilde, who was quite a big man.

Can you choose between stage and film and TV work or do you enjoy them both equally?

They’re both equally enjoyable in different ways. The wonderful thing about stage work is that you get to rehearse and you have the competitive process of constantly polishing, polishing, polishing and trying out new ideas all the time - whereas with film and television it’s your first idea that’s put on screen. You learn the lines the night before, then you go and perform it the following day and that’s it, it’s done – that scene is over and is recorded for posterity. If there were the time and the money with film and TV to rehearse in the way that you do with a play it would probably be a very different performance. That’s not to say you don’t get brilliant performances because very often your first idea is a very good one and you’re thinking and reacting instinctively, which is also a good thing. They’re entirely different media and I love doing both of them, but I must say one of the things I enjoy about rehearsing for a play is not having to get up at 5.30 in the morning, then through various exigencies having to wait in the trailer until 11am before you’re called to the set. The hours you have to do as actors nowadays – and the crew of course – when filming are absolutely cruel. Effectively you’re working 15 or 16 hours a day when you’re filming.

Do you have any pre or post show rituals?

It depends on the part. I try to walk to the theatre so that my body is moving and staying as loose as possible, getting exercise and fresh air. I always do a vocal warm-up and some physical loosening because doing a play is very physically demanding. Clearly you can’t stand on the stage and shout because people would be uncomfortable – they’d recognise the fact you were shouting. But you do have to speak very much louder than you normally would without sounding as if you’re shouting and that requires the use of the diaphragm, which is the biggest muscle in the body believe it or not. Over a couple of hours it’s rather exhausting. Then after a show I just flob about. I don’t go out. A lot of actors after a show like to go out and have a meal but I don’t drink so that’s not an issue. After the show I just want to get back to the digs or wherever I’m staying as fast as possible and just relax with some late-night TV.

Which roles are you most recognised for?

Mostly it’s Judge John Deed. I think he’s the character people love the most and he’s the one they ask about most. Then George Gently is a very close second.

And what are your own personal career highlights?

That would be another play I’d wanted to be in ever since I first started acting and that was A Man For All Seasons. When I saw the Paul Scofield film I was completely entranced by the history – because I love history – and again by the beautiful writing. Finally, about six or seven years ago, my friend Bill Kenwright – who is such a great producer – gave me the opportunity to play the role. It was an enormous success and we broke box office records. I got to play the part of my dreams, so that’s my personal career highlight.

When you’re touring what’s the one thing you couldn’t be without?

Physically it would be being in good health. With the less tangible things, I couldn’t do without a sense of commitment and professionalism. I take great pride in my work but I also take pride in the way that it’s done, which means not giving yourself airs and graces but being on time and being considerate to other actors. On my way up, when I was much further down the list in my early days, I used to look at people who didn’t do that and I saw how uncomfortable it was for everybody else. So I made a vow that I wouldn’t be like that.

One of the tour venues is the Theatre Royal Bath. Does it have a special significance for you?

The Theatre Royal in Bath is such a delightful, beautiful theatre. It’s a Georgian theatre with exquisite acoustics and it’s actually an extra character in the play because it carries with it all that extraordinary history. I’ve performed there several times and it’s important to have good acoustics, which modern theatres very rarely do. It’s also in a beautiful city.