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The Hired Man

Book by Melvyn Bragg, Music and lyrics by Howard Goodall
New Perspectives Theatre Company
Greenwich Theatre and touring

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The Hired Man was written in 1984 and since its first production has garnered a number of award nominations and accolades both here and abroad. This is probably unsurprising since it has quite some pedigree.

Melvyn Bragg, who adapted his own novel of the same name for this piece, will be known to millions as a result of over forty years in broadcasting, but his writing career goes back to the 60s and he has over twenty books under his belt.

Similarly, Howard Goodall is probably best known as the presenter of such programmes as the BBC's Young Musician of the Year, Channel 4's How Music Works and his own Radio 2 series, however, careful readers of programme credits may remember he penned such memorable theme-tunes as Blackadder and The Vicar of Dibley. Goodall is also an award-winning composer of film scores, works for organ and other compositions.

The Hired Man has largely survived the passing of the decades. It has a certain naiveté that makes me question whether it could compete with the streetwise musicals that now abound in the West End, and I also wonder whether some of the 'real guts' of the book were lost in the adaptation, but one of its key strengths is the timeless story - that of a young couple struggling to make a living from the land.

The piece is set in rural Cumbria at the turn of the twentieth century leading through to the period immediately after the First World War and the social upheavals of the time are reflected in the lives of the central protagonists, Emily and John, and John's two brothers ,one of whom eschews the land in favour of racing dogs and the other who leads a collective movement in the mines.

The historic context and the illicit affair between Emily and Jackson - it is Jackson's father who has taken John onto his farm as a hired man - provides plenty of material for drama and for some superb musical pieces under the care of skilful musical director, Richard Reeday.

The original score of The Hired Man was written for piano, trumpet, harp, bass and harpsichord and an optional string quartet but for New Perspective's touring production the cleverly pared down score provides for piano, trumpet and single string.

If there were moments when I missed the sound of a fuller musical accompaniment they were more than compensated for by the sheer simplicity of some excellent singing supported only by a piano, and the occasional and judicious addition of trumpet or violin were used to good effect.

"If I Could" sung by love-torn Emily with Jackson on one side and John on the other was beautifully delivered and if you are the sort to be moved sufficiently to shed a tear at the theatre, then "Farewell Song" sung by Emily and her children as they see John off to war could be the one to set you off.

This is not to say that The Hired Man is heavily laden with sentimentality but it is written in a choral style and the singing soars, reaching anthemic proportions so it is unashamedly moving and up-lifting. When the cast are at their best their singing is as good as anything in the West End and in comparison to, say, the likes of Grease, considerably better.

Katie Howell (who also choreographs) is charming as young Sally in the first act and daughter May in the second, her sunny characterisations contrasting with the more grown up Emily of Claire Sundin who convincingly transforms from optimistic young bride to bereaved mother.

Simon Pontin provides a dashing and heroic Jackson and also accompanies on trumpet. Together with Andrew Wheaton and the three brothers, also ably played by Richard Colvin, David Strothard and Stuart Ward, they fill the auditorium with their singing and when they get their teeth into "War" they sound like an entire army.

Credit must go to Juliet Shillingford and Mark Dymock for their contributions. The set is simple but efficient, with minimal changes and well-thought-out lighting transforming it from a Cumbrian hillside to the trenches of Passchendaele and a mine-shaft.

All-in-all there is much to praise in Daniel Buckroyd's production. What a shame the end of its UK tour approaches.

"The Hired Man" runs until Saturday 8th March, performances at 8pm with a matinee on Saturday at 2.30pm

Reviewer: Sandra Giorgetti