Book: Melvyn Bragg
Music and Lyrics: Howard Goodall
Director: Nikolai Foster
Musical Director: Sarah Travis
Reviewer: Glen Pearce
There are moments when history and theatre collide to create a moment of intense resonance. Howard Goodall’s The Hired Man covers an epic sweep of Cumbrian history but, in this Centenary year of the outbreak of the First World War, this National Youth Music Theatre’s revival tugs at the heartstrings. Here we have a cast of hugely capable young performers remembering a generation torn apart by the horrors of 1914-18.
This isn’t however a musical of the war, Goodall’s adaptation of Melvyn Bragg’s semi biographical novel captures a lost generation and community – its epic sweep capturing the hardship yet hope-filled community of agricultural Cumbria at the turn of the last century.
Capturing the choral tradition of the locale, Goodall’s score weaves the intimate with the epic, a challenging score but one delivered with skill by the National Youth Music Theatre.
Nikolai Foster’s production makes no concession to the youthfulness of the cast; 31 performers aged 11 – 23, instead embracing their energy and authenticity of a community that would have been equally as youthful. This was an immense period of change, a generation beginning to question their downtrodden existence, a generation on the verge of great potential but a generation decimated by the horror of war.
In an age when farm labourers were a commodity to be haggled over at hiring fairs, John Tallentire has high hopes for his young family. Married young, life is tough for John and wife Emily but their love stands strong thorough all challenges thrown at them. This not a fairy-tale rose tinted relationship, affairs and arguments mark their passage through a quarter of a century.
Seventeen year olds Dominic Harrison as John and Amara Okereke as Emily centre the piece with mesmerising performances. Both sing powerfully but imbibe their performances with intense emotion. Their duet No Choir of Angels perfectly captures a lifetime of highs and lows. There’s also a striking performance from eighteen year old Joe Eaton-Kent as Jackson, whose affair with Emily haunts her entire life. There’s a sly cockiness to Eaton-Kent’s performance, countered by his haunting violin playing. Indeed, Sarah Travis’ musical direction returns to her heritage, incorporating a number of actor-musicians into the cast. It gives the piece further community authenticity, reminiscent of village, infantry and pit bands of the area.
Matthew Wright’s set of cobblestones and rolling dales, sculptured evocatively in light by Ben Cracknell, allows the company to move swiftly across the decades with Nick Winston’s gusty, earthy choreography.
The aforementioned historical convergence comes to the fore in act two as the young men of the village head off to war, a generation of similar age to those in the cast. As the young men sing in the trenches and face us to tell us of the horror and futility of war it is impossible not to be moved. With the haunting Day After Day, with its ghosts of Passchendaele reference, this is a fitting memorial to a fallen generation.
There are occasional moments when individual lines are lost in the exuberance of the ensemble, but these minor projection issues can easily be rectified during the run.
The Hired Man is becoming something of a rediscovered classic. Productions by the Mercury Theatre Colchester last year and a forthcoming production at the Union Theatre show that, in the 30th anniversary since it was first staged, there is a growing recognition that this could be our country’s greatest chamber musical.
This National Youth Music Theatre production though is one that will live long in the memory and the heart. Much like the generation portrayed there is great potential for this company of talented performers and this is a fitting tribute to both their skill and to that lost generation of a century ago.
Photo: Konrad Bartelski