Saturday 24 September 2016

The Hired Man In Concert - Review

Cadogan Hall, London


Music and lyrics by Howard Goodall
Book and narration by Melvyn Bragg
Directed by Samuel Hopkins

It is all too rare that an established musical is performed as a stand-alone concert. Taking the rich beauty of Howard Goodall's score and having it sung by some of the industry's biggest names, it was no wonder that The Hired Man in Concert, for one night only, was a hot ticket. Not just that the leads were joined by an onstage ensemble and accompanied by a stunning 14 piece orchestra, conducted beautifully by Andrew Linnie, narration was also delivered at various points, by none other than the book's author, Melvyn Bragg. 

Set in England around the turn of the 20th century, The Hired Man focuses on the day to day life of those who lived on and worked the Cumbrian farms out on the fells and who were inevitably to go off and fight in the Great War. From the outset Goodall's score richly defines atmosphere and emotion, going hand in hand with events as they unfold. For audience members the piece is a roller coaster of emotions and the celebratory highs and tragic lows were not lost within this concert version. 

Amongst the cast there wasn't a weak link to be found, particularly amongst the vocal power houses of the leading voices. However while all seven leads delivered excellence, it was a shame that all referred frequently to script and score in front of them, detracting from the power of both spoken and sung performances. Hiccups aside, the cast delivered sterling performances.

Jenna Russell's Emily Tallentire bubbled with detail and nuance in all the moments of her character's uncertainty, while John Owen-Jones made Goodall's music sound easy, adding just the right amount of passion and struggle. Both performers are so well known for so much, but tonight it was just a treat to hear them get their vocal teeth stuck into Goodall's mellifluous melodies.

And for the aficionados in the crowd, there was the neatest of touches. On stage and in a marvellous performance singing the role of Seth Tallentire (John’s brother) was Stewart Clarke. It had been Clarke’s parents Paul Clarkson and Julia Hills who’d played John and Emily in 1984 when the show premiered in the West End. 

Director Samuel Hopkins ensured that the minimal staging complimented rather than confused proceedings. Simple costuming gave a sense of each of the characters' backgrounds, while stunning projections filled the immense white back drop of the Cadogan Hall's rear wall. Those images, alongside Bragg's narration, were welcome sign posts guiding the audience through the show's key settings and contextual changes. 

Notwithstanding a few teething issues (be easily forgiven in a one night only gig) the show still captivated its audience, the concert format bringing a magnifying glass to Goodall's stunning score. This is without doubt one of the most beautiful pieces of British Musical Theatre and after this concert treatment, one cannot help but feel that The Hired Man needs another outing in London's West End.

Reviewed by: Andrew Milton

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