Book: Melvyn Bragg
Music/Lyrics: Howard Goodall
Director: Douglas Rintoul
Designer: Jean Chan
Musical Director: Ben Goddard
Reviewer: Ron Simpson
Great claims are made for The Hired Man in the publicity for this co-production which has already been well received at the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch. On this evidence, it’s difficult to accept that it’s the best British musical of the last 40 years, but there is more than a smidgeon of truth in the claim that it is a musical like no other. Where the statement is not true is in some pleasing, but rather generic, songs for sometimes predictable characters, but Howard Goodall’s choral writing is outstanding, probably unique in a 1980s musical, and creates a sense of a community which is stronger than the individuality of many of the characters.
In Act 1 John, a young married man, gets himself hired at the hiring fair – this is the 1890s – and goes to work at a hard-scrabble farm. So far, so Thomas Hardy, though in Cumbria, not Wessex. Equally Hardy-esque is the affair between John’s spirited wife Emily and Jackson Pennington, the farmer’s son. Not all is in the Hardy tradition, however: Jackson is no son of privilege, cracking his whip from the back of his thoroughbred, but works, in a fairly desultory fashion, alongside John. Also, John has a choice: he can work in the mines as his brother Isaac does – at least the pay’s better.
Act 2 is set up for a confrontation between John and Jackson or an agonizing choice for Emily. Instead, we lose 15 or so years, meet John and Emily’s teenage children, attend a feisty union meeting (John has chosen the mines), then go to war in 1914. There’s a fair bit to follow that, too, including the obligatory pit disaster, with the result that the second half, never short of incident and with some excellent scenes, is a bit ramshackle in construction. Melvyn Bragg’s script is tautly economical and there is a strong temptation to fill it out by reading the original novel.
In Douglas Rintoul’s stripped down production eleven remarkably versatile performers take care of business as individual characters, a highly effective ensemble and, especially, a first-class accompanying group, often lugging instruments around as they act out scenes. Jean Chan provides a basic set of, usually, just a table and chair (the table mainly for standing on) on a cannily used revolve, while at the back musicians muster behind a screen of expansive skyscapes.
Lauryn Redding and Oliver Hembrough form a sympathetic pairing at the centre of it all, she having an understated intensity that gains power throughout the performance, he gently reactive for the most part, his discovery of Jackson’s involvement with Emily an exception.
The remaining cast members do great things as an ensemble, even if real individuality is at a premium. All are good, but worth singling out for different reasons are Lloyd Gorman, who finds a touch of ambiguity in the enigmatic Jackson, Jon Bonner who ranges from farmer to vicar via a plummily inarticulate Army officer and also supplies some excellent trumpet, and, particularly, Tom Self. It’s entirely appropriate that among the Hornchurch nominations for Off West End Theatre awards was a joint one for Best Musical Director for Ben Goddard and Tom Self. Goddard clearly did some terrific preparation; Self at the keyboard, sometimes even underscoring dialogue scenes, occasionally emerging to take a part in the play, does wonders to bind together a worthy, very enjoyable, but not always coherent, evening.
Runs until June 15, 2019 | Image: Contributed