The Hired Man
Book by Melvyn Bragg, music and lyrics by Howard Goodall
The Landor Theatre
I could count on one hand the number of times I have left a theatre wanting urgently to own the score of the musical I have just seen. The Hired Man would be assigned one of my digits and the recording I have owned for a few years now has always been sure of a place on my iPod.
Unsurprisingly then, and as much as I would have liked to have seen Rosemary Ashe in the cancelled production of Gypsy, I couldn't have been happier to hear that The Hired Man was taking its place in the Landor's schedule. And anyway, this has freed up Ms Ashe to give a wonderful performance at the Union Theatre in Dames at Sea.
The Hired Man couldn't be more different than either Gypsy or Dames in character. It's singularly British for one thing, and there is nothing brash, blousy or mocking about this earnest story of love, toil and loss. Loosely based on the lives of the writer Melvyn Bragg's own grandparents, it follows the lives of the Tallentire family from the 1890s.
As the decades unfold it reflects the social upheavals of the period as well as the particular struggles of a rural Cumbrian life. The marriage of John and Emily is strained by his hard work to eek out a living on the Pennington family farm where he labours as a hired man. Eventually John leaves the land and joins his brother Seth underground in the mines, where the conditions are dangerous and difficult and Seth battles to set up a union in a bid for change.
Change as they never imagined comes in the form of World War I. John, Seth and their happy-go-lucky brother Issac sign up and join Jackson Pennington, Emily's past lover, in the trenches. Against her wishes Emily and John's young son also goes to the War. When peace returns those that make it home find that things are not the same, but life is not happier than before and in a rather rushed ending John returns to the land.
Under the musical supervision of Niall Bailey (associate musical director Jack Moore) Goodall's pastoral and folk inspired richly lyrical score is executed with verve and style, and the four piece band of piano and three strings is perfect for this small venue.
The musical ambitions of the piece leave me in awe of Goodall's youthful skill - he composed The Hired Man aged 26 - and in Andrew Keates' production the big voiced ensemble sweep you away on Goodall's plush melodic waves. This is unashamedly emotional stuff and the rousing score is as much to blame for the lumps in the throat and the tears as the heart-tugging story.
However much you love a piece, the devil is in the delivery and here it is pretty heavenly. The outstandingly strong cast is led by Joe Maxwell as the stolid and honourable John. Excellent interpretations too from Martin Neely as activist Seth and Ian Daniels as the unlikely hero Jackson.
Catherine Mort doesn't have a markedly attractive singing voice but her Emily is big on conviction. May, the Tallentire young daughter, is beautifully played by Abigail Matthews and Kimberly Powell and Jamie Birkett hold their own as the only ladies in the exceptional ensemble.
Productions of this quality of material this good don't come along every day. Now is the time to get to the Landor.
"The Hired Man" runs Tuesday to Saturday evenings with Saturday and Sunday matinées until 27th August
Reviewer: Sandra Giorgetti