Book: Melvyn Bragg
Music and lyrics: Howard Goodall
Director: Douglas Rintoul
One of the very few positives to come out of the current theatre closures is that those of us who may not live too near to places like Hornchurch, Hull or Oldham are getting the chance to see excellent shows streamed on the internet. The Hired Man is the sort of musical that would be difficult to place in the West End, but it lies there to be rediscovered from time to time by regional or fringe theatres and to emerge as a gem. This 2019 revival, a joint production by Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch and Hull Truck Theatre in association with Oldham Coliseum Theatre, is, without doubt, such a gem.
Melvyn Bragg’s 1969 novel charts working class life in his beloved Cumbria between the 1890s and the 1920s. The musical, first staged in 1984 and revised in 2003, is a collaboration between the novelist and composer/lyricist Howard Goodall. The setting is the fictional Cumbrian mining town of Thurston and the central focus is on farm worker turned miner John Tallentire (Oliver Hembrough) and his wife Emily (Lauryn Redding). He is a diligent worker with no time for pleasure and she, a bubbly and wilful young woman, starts an affair with a farmer’s son, Jackson (Lloyd Gorman).
Performed on a circular revolving stage, with darkened surrounds and a bleak backdrop which suggests a rainy, windswept landscape, the show pulls no punches in depicting the hardships of life. There are few splashes of colour in Jean Chan’s design and any feel good factor is in short supply, but still the writers celebrate the resilience of the human spirit while they question the social order of the era. The men are faced with endless dangerous manual labour and poor union representation, while the women cook meals, scrub floors and wring washing.
In the first act, the writers’ emphasis on drudgery and exploitation possibly goes too far and becomes repetitive. When the action jumps forward some 15 years to 1914 at the start of the second act, the drama becomes packed with raw emotion. Now John and Emily have teenage children, May (Lara Lewis) and Harry (Joe Sharp) and World War I is looming. The horror of working men again being exploited by the irresistible forces that control them and suck them into the carnage of France and Belgium needs no over-emphasis and is described fittingly in Bragg’s book and Goodall’s lyrics.
A company of 11 actor/musicians energises director Douglas Rintoul’s heartfelt production and generates a strong sense of community. They perform Goodall’s folk style songs with true conviction, which matters when the lyrics form the main part of the storytelling. The lead actors, Hembrough, Redding and Gorman, all give carefully nuanced performances that bring out the strengths and the flaws in their characters. The quality of this recording is occasionally patchy, but the quality of the show still shines through clearly.
Available here until 21 June 2020