Curve Studio, Leicester
Book and lyrics by Melvyn Bragg
Music by Howard Goodall
Directed by Daniel Buckroyd
|Julie Atherton and Kit Orton
The Hired Man is quite possibly the greatest ever English musical. In a story that avoids sentiment and cliché, Bragg and Goodall open a window into a tightly knit Cumbrian community, via a tale that spans the reigns of Queen Victoria through to King George V and addresses the growth of industry, the challenge it presented to those who worked the land, the rise of the trade union movement, the devastation of the First World War and the emerging trend towards women’s emancipation. And all this through perceptive verse and the most stirring of scores.
David Hunter, an ITV Superstar semi-finalist is John Tallentire, the hired man of the title who is introduced at a hiring fair, in the Song Of The Hired Men, a striking melody reprised throughout the show. Newly arrived in Crossbridge village, together with pregnant wife Emily, John is an honest hard working man, blind to the subtleties of life and oblivious to his beautiful wife’s needs for more than just the “same blessed rain on washing day”. When Emily first spies local landowner’s son and cad Jackson Pennington wrestling in a local tavern, she cannot help but immediately flirt with him. Inevitably trysting follows and act one culminates with the blindly-trusting John excruciatingly learning of his having been cuckolded.
Act two condenses a vast span of years and plot into a credible hour of performance. The exploitation of the coal miners and the emergence of a union in response to their hellish working conditions together with the slaughter and devastated aftermath of war are tackled confidently by the writers.
Daniel Buckroyd, Artistic Director of Colchester’s co-producer Mercury Theatre is no stranger to the work and on Juliet Shillingford's cleverly designed sloping slabs of land, that depict Cumbrian fells as vividly as the Somme, he extracts clever concepts, particularly with the boisterous tavern scenes and a gripping penultimate moment, set at a Whitehaven coal face that has been terrifyingly extended far out under the sea. Yet Buckroyd also makes some disappointing short cuts. Blackrock, a phenomenally stirring song of the dangers of mining is an opportunity wasted, with minimal acting action being added to its powerful lyrics. Farewell Song, sung as the local men leave for war and which could arguably be included in the liturgy of any Remembrance Service such is its power, has some of the most beautifully engineered key changes ever composed and should, in the right hands, be able to effortlessly prise open the tear ducts. In this production, sadly, it fails to hit that spot.
John's is a very tough role to portray. A solid traditional man of the land, black and white in opinion and seeking only to work hard to provide for his family, his naivete lends a profound complexity to his make up. Whilst unquestionably beautifully voiced, Hunter doesn’t quite reach the depths of credibility that could make this character truly believable.
Julie Atherton however is a definitive Emily. Her pitch and tone are perfection and her acting is simply flawless. A woman, fiercely loving and protective as a mother, yet with a burning desire to broaden her world through both a passionate love affair and later in going out to work. (In an era still brimming with chauvinism, it was rare for married women to earn a wage.) The frustrated passion that Atherton injects into her character’s supressed desire for Jackson is almost red-hot with stifled sexual yearning and when Bragg’s story draws Emily into experiencing tragedy, her response and sobs of grief are perfectly delivered to claw at our heart strings without once becoming mawkish. Kit Orton’s Jackson (also a dab hand on the violin) together with Jenni Bowden’s singing and trumpet-playing performances are noteworthy cast members amongst a talented company who all perform with wit and clarity throughout.
Under pianist / MD Richard Reeday the show’s music is simply yet subtly arranged. A modestly sized band, drawn mainly from the cast who pick up their instruments as and when required and with an inspired inclusion of harp and trumpet. Never has Goodall’s music sounded so perfect, with just enough mournful trumpet melodies lines to depict the North poignantly and passionately.
Albeit possibly deserving of an alternative title: “The Hired Man’s Wife”, this production nonetheless remains what its writers always intended. A living history lesson, beautifully told, of England’s transition into the 20th century.
Runs until April 27th