Book: Melvyn Bragg
Music and Lyrics: Howard Goodall
Director: Douglas Rintoul
Reviewer: Helen Jones
Writer Melvyn Bragg wrote his original novel The Hired Man in the 1960s. He used his grandfather as the basis for the story of an ordinary working man in Cumberland towards the end of Victoria’s reign. Newly married John Tallantire and his wife Emily are at one of the hiring fairs in Cumbria and John takes work with Mr Pennington on his farm in the Cumbrian Fells. He is now a ‘hired man’. In the early 1980s, Howard Goodall took Melvyn Bragg’s story, wrote music and lyrics and the musical The Hired Man was created. First produced in 1984 in Sheffield and Leicester before a transfer to the West End, the show has been revived a few times in the ensuing 35 years, and again here with this production between Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch, Hull Truck and the Coliseum.
The first act follows John and Emily through their time at the farm in the 1890s and the problems they encounter. Act two jumps forward several years, John is now working in the mines and their daughter May is 16 and son Harry 13. John and his brothers Seth and Isaac are drafted during the First World War, followed eventually by young Harry. Life is never easy and the hardship of their life is at the core of this powerful and moving story.
Oliver Hembrough is a stoical and quiet John, he portrays the hardworking but sensitive man well and has a pleasant voice. Lauryn Redding as his wife Emily has the character’s bright personality perfectly and is also excellent when acting the emotional side. Unfortunately, her vocal range was weaker in the higher registers and had a tendency to lose both accent and tone when at her most emotional moments. The rest of the eleven-strong cast of actor/musicians play a huge variety of roles with notable performances from Samuel Martin as Isaac and Lara Lewis as May.
Jean Chan’s almost bare set, save for a revolving turntable and some props, are backed by a beautiful yet subtle curtain backdrop of the Cumberland fells, while the costumes are effective despite some glaring inaccuracies.
The original production had a cast of twenty-one and a full orchestra, here Director Douglas Rintoul has pared it down to eleven who double up as the orchestra throughout. The direction and staging is clever but the bigger ensemble numbers are definitely missing the power that a bigger cast could provide. Overall it is great to see this excellent musical revived, but as a production, it is uneven and needs more consistency.
Runs until 6 July 2019 | Image: Mark Sepple