The Hired Man has been doing the rounds since 1984 and now finds a home at the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch. Based on Melvyn Bragg’s 1969 novel of the same name, the author collaborated in its creation, delighting, no doubt, in the exposure it gave to his native Cumbria. It was Howard Goodall’s first musical and amongst many other credits he has since created Love Story and Bend it Like Beckham.
A wholesome show in which some might delight.
The story centres around the lives of husband and wife John (Oliver Hembrough) and Emily Tallentire (Lauryn Redding). At a Hiring Fair, John is taken into employment by local farmer, Pennington (Jon Bonner). On a hunting trip with his brother, Isaac (Samuel Martin), John discovers that his wife is having some sort of liaison with Pennington's son, Jackson, whom John knocks out in a fight, upon their return to town. The somewhat strained marriage continues, however, and they have two children. May (Lara Lewis) is a rather innocent 16 year-old country girl and Harry (James William-Pattison) is full of often misplaced bravado. Time moves from the 1890s to World War 1. John, Isaac and Jackson are sent to the front where Isaac suffers a debilitating leg injury. This marks the beginning of a series of sad events that places the show firmly in the ranks of tragedy.
Two strands run through this musical. One is an exposé of working life on the land, down the pit and in the army; the other is a story of heartbreak, love and personal sorrow. In this particular production by Douglas Rintoul, the former is more successful than the latter. Men and women battle to achieve a fair market price for their services, while employees drive as hard a bargain as possible to push down wages. In the mines lives are cheap and safety expensive. The trade union movement is underway, however, and radicals are challenging the established order, though not in the military forces, of course. There, the canon fodder of human life passes at an alarming rate. These scenarios are portrayed through an often intense combination of performance, music and staging.
The set is a thrust revolve, angled gently towards the audience with the area to the sides of the protruding arc used as settings for the mine tunnel and the trenches. Various locations are suggested by the use of tables, chairs and other props. The pianist and other musicians, when not in scenes on the revolve, occupy the space to the rear. Jean Chan’s spartan design creates space for movement sequences and facilitates easy transitions between scenes, even though some remain clumsy. It neatly reflects the bleak existence that many experienced, but it fails to provide a sense of community amongst the townsfolk or intimacy in the home, which was achieved so successfully in the production of Once.
The second strand needs this support, particularly given the lack of emotional depth in the script and the speed at which events move. A few glances take the plot into a full-blown, potentially marriage-breaking relationship that lacks the necessary build-up to achieve credibility. The marriage somehow survives, but the process receives scant exploration. There scenes that edge towards love and romance but they often seem restrained and entirely predictable.
Casting Director Matthew Dewsbury has put together a highly talented and versatile ensemble that sing heartily under the musical direction of Ben Goddard and play a range of instruments and double up in numerous roles. There are some pleasant and stirring, if not overwhelming memorable. numbers that capture the necessary moods, often despite some cringe-worthy rhyming couplets in the libretto and top notes being excessively belted out. The often overly lavish costumes are co-ordinated around a pleasing palette of brown, mustard, green and ochres.
The Hired Man is co-produced by the Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch and Hull Truck Theatre in association with Oldham Coliseum Theatre and will go on tour. It’s a wholesome show in which some might delight.