Monday 18 August 2014

The Hired Man - Review

St James Theatre, London


Music and lyrics by Howard Goodall
Book by Melvyn Bragg
Directed by Nikolai Foster

Dominic Harrison and Amara Okereke

The programme notes for this production written by Howard Goodall himself, speak of the poignant significance of The Hired Man being staged in 2014, the centenary of the Great War. Goodall references the youthful age of the soldiers slaughtered in that infernal conflict, bringing a haunting resonance to bear upon this powerful interpretation of the show, produced by NYMT with a predominantly teenage cast.

The tale spans a thirty year stretch of English history, betwixt the 19th and 20th centuries and follows John Tallentire, the titular hired man and his journey through the economic evolution of his beloved Cumbrian fells. We see John shift from being a skilled ploughman, to an oppressed life below ground in a coal mine.  The demands of industry are replacing the more traditional rural lifestyles whilst against this backdrop, wife Emily falls into an adulterous affair with Jackson Pennington the dashing son of the local landowner and the First World War looms, ultimately to devastate the Tallentire family and the wider community.

Goodall and Bragg created an ingenious piece of theatre with The Hired Man. The first act is intimate, focussed upon John, his family and Emily’s extra-marital desires, before the second act widens the musical’s scope exponentially, addressing the march of industry, the rise of the trade union movement and the brutality of the War.

Under Nikolai Foster’s generally perceptive eye Dominic Harrison does well as John, carrying the burden of the narrative through his performance. It’s not easy for any teenage boy to play a cuckold, though Harrison rises to the challenge with a creditable performance as a good, if wronged man. Opposite him Amara Okereke, Maria in NYMT’s 2013 West Side Story is Emily, reprising her exquisite vocal work, combined with immaculate nuance, to create her complex character. A Yorkshire lass, Okereke’s natural northern brogue suits the play’s geography perfectly. The cast of thirty are at their best in Nick Winston’s splendidly choreographed numbers, none better than the multi-part harmonies that close each act, thrilling with the fusion of melody, lyrics and a stage full of young people in perfect synchronicity. 

An actor-muso production, many of the company are all the more remarkable for mastering their instrument on stage as well as acting. Joe Eaton-Kent’s exquisite work on violin/viola more than matches his work as Jackson Pennington, whilst amongst the (many) unsung gems of this cast Gloria Obianyo’s guitar playing adds a folksy contemporary touch to the sound not commonly heard. The credit for this innovative musical impact with musical director Sarah Travis. Re-arranging numbers to accommodate the actor-muso transition it turns out that much like adding mineral water to a fine scotch malt, so has Travis taken Goodall’s score and opened it up, releasing hitherto hidden yet beautiful complexities. These revelations are particularly highlighted in act one’s Fill It To The Top and in the second half’s haunting post-war elegy, Day Follows Day. 

Farewell Song, sung by the entire company immediately before the young men leave to  face the terrors of France, remains one of the most moving songs in the musical theatre canon, its words depicting  the anguish of such painful partings. As Goodall’s exquisite key changes pluck at our heart strings, if ever a song were to merit inclusion in November’s annual Festival of Remembrance it is this one.

Ben Cracknell’s stark lighting work cleverly depicts the shifts in the story’s time and location, whilst Matthew Wright’s flag-stoned stage perfectly anchors the show’s era. Notably absent from the production team is a hair and make-up professional. This is an unfortunate omission as the show’s final scenes, of Emily and John in more senior years, demand a more visible change in appearances to mark the passing of time and would have assisted the young actors in portraying their parents’ generation more convincingly.

But bravo to NYMT and the inspirational vision of producer Jeremy Walker. Yet again, in an incredibly short space of time and coached by some of the industry’s finest creatives, talented young amateurs have gone on to realise theatrical excellence on a commercial stage.

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