Review: The Hired Man

4 star rating
Melvyn Bragg and Howard Goodall's 1984 musical gets a strong and vital revival in a production featuring a strikingly talented cast of actor-musicians.
The Hired Man at the Queen's Theatre Hornchurch

Image courtesy Queen's Theatre Hornchurch



Closes here: Saturday 18 May 2019

Author:
Melvyn Bragg (book)

Composer:
Howard Goodall

Lyricist:
Howard Goodall

Director:
Douglas Rintoul

Cast:

Jon Bonner - Pennington / Blacklock/ The Recruiting Officer/ The Vicar

Lloyd Gorman - Jackson

Oliver Hembrough - John

TJ Holmes - Seth / Ensemble

Lucy Keirl - Sally / Ensemble

Lara Lewis - May / Ensemble

Sufia Manya - Ensemble

Samuel Martin - Isaac / Ensemble

Lauryn Redding - Emily

Tom Self - Show MD / The Union Chairman

James William-Pattison - Harry / Joe Sharp


Synopsis


Cumbria, 1898.


Whippet racing, hiring fairs, hunting and drunken antics collide, in this passionate story of John and Emily, a young married couple, and their moving struggle to carve a living from the land.


An epic and heroic tale of love, betrayal and loyalty, set against a backdrop of English country traditions being swept away as a new century faces the gathering storm of war …


Background


Based on the stirring novel by Melvyn Bragg, with a superb score of rousing foot stomping rhythms and soaring choruses by Howard Goodall, the award-winning composer of West End hits Bend It Like Beckham and Love Story.

ActDrop reviews


Peter Brown

Performance date: Tuesday 30 April 2019
Review star rating image

The musical version of Melvyn Bragg's novel 'The Hired Man', gets a revival featuring a strikingly talented cast of actor musicians in a production directed by Douglas Rintoul, artistic director at the Queen's Theatre Hornchurch.


Messrs Bragg and Goodall's musical first appeared in London's West End back in 1984, winning the presitgeous Novello Award for Best Musical, receiving several Olivier Award nominations and singled-out by several top critics as Best Musical of the year.


Its reputation, then, is well-established as indeed are the credentials of its creators.


Melvyn Bragg is a well-known broadcaster and author, and Howard Goodall might be better known to some as composer of another musical, Bend it Like Beckham, and much else besides.


The story which underlies this musical is based on Melvyn Bragg's Cumbrian Trilogy and follows the lives of a family and farming community in Cumbria (in the North-West of England) during a period stretching from the 1890s to the 1920s.


In the early part of the piece we find farm labourers offering themselves for 'hire' to local farmers.


As time goes by, these same people look to the growing mining industry for more financial rewards, even if the conditions they have to endure turn out to be more perilous.


And, in the second half of the show, we find them hiring themselves out to the army - 'taking the King's shilling' - to leave their native shores and fight in the First World War.


Overall, then, this is a show about working class people and the harsh realities of their lives as farmers, miners and fighters.


Those occupations at the turn of the twentieth century were defined by extreme hardship, but the first half of the show doesn't really offer much description of just just how difficult the lives of these people really were.


Things do become rather more meaty and interesting in the second half, where we find the communal lives of the people being interrupted by mining disasters and the horrors of war.

The Hired Man Company at Queen's Theatre Hornchurch

The Hired Man Company - photo by Mark Sepple


Given the nature of the locational setting, and the fact that the story revolves around several industries as well as a theatre of war, there are relatively few economical options in terms of staging this show.


But that is actually an important facet of the original concept - it isn't meant to be one of the glitzily extravagant endeavours where lavish set design and expensive costumes abound.


Here, simplicity of staging is the order of the day and works perfectly well given the overall structure.


That results in the main feature of Jean Chan's design being a central revolving stage which allows for ample fluidity in both scene changes and movement.


Since the cast are all actor-musicians (playing a wide range of instruments including violins, cello, clarinet, flute and more) there's no attempt to hide their instruments as they switch between musical numbers and dialogue.


In fact the instruments almost become features in themselves, doubling-up on occasion as other things, including a cello standing-in for a dog!


Moreover, since the style and nature of the piece is rather different and distinct from other popular musicals, the show has its own particular appeal in terms of the nature of the songs which range from the hauntingly melodic to rousing choruses.


Of course, casts of actor-musicians are fairly commonplace these days, so there's not much uniqueness to be found in the actual make-up of the ensemble itself.


But there's especially fine musicality to relish here from an excellently cast and hugely impressive team, who do more than ample justice to Howard Goodall's exceptional compositions, and are equally at ease playing instruments, singing and delivering believable characterisations.


Though there have been fairly regular revivals of The Hired Man, productions don't appear quite as often as other major, well-known musicals, which may be a little surprising given the show's distinctive musical landscape.


So if you're a devotee of musical theatre and haven't seen this impressive work before, then it's probably one you'll find irresistible and rewarding given this strong and vital treatment from the ever-capable directorial hands of Douglas Rintoul.



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