The Hired Man
Book by Melvyn Bragg, music and lyrics by Howard Goodall
Queen's Theatre Hornchurch, Hull Truck Theatre and Oldham Coliseum Theatre
Oldham Coliseum Theatre
On its last leg of the tour of its co-producers, director Douglas Rintoul of Queen's Theatre Hornchurch brings to Oldham his revival of a show that the programme claims "many remember... as the greatest greatest British musical of the last half century," but to be honest I doubt many people have heard of it. It originally played in the West End for just five months in 1984-5, coming chronologically between the London openings of Blood Brothers and Les Misérables (and there are slight echoes of both in the score, but I think it is just an '80s thing), and hasn't often been revived since.
Based on Melvyn Bragg's 1969 novel, it is set in Bragg's native Cumbria (as it is now known) around the turn of the twentieth century in a small community of mixed farm workers and coal miners, with the latter getting the highest wages. The play opens with a group of farm labourers offering themselves for employment to a local landowner and negotiating with him their wage for a job that is won by John (Oliver Hembrough), who also gets a run-down cottage for himself and his new wife Emily (Lauryn Redding). John becomes obsessed by his work, neglecting his family, and the affections of Jackson (Lloyd Gorman), son of John's employer, towards Emily are starting to be returned.
This first act is therefore basically a love triangle, climaxing when John is away fox hunting with his brother Isaac (Samuel Martin) in a powerful duet when Emily reluctantly rejects Jackson (then abuses him for actually going) and then culminating in a fight between the two men, impressively staged by fight director Bethan Clark. This is set against the landscape and the harsh conditions for the workers in the Lake District of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, but this is more a backdrop to the action than a central part of it—this is a long way from D H Lawrence.
Act two is completely different and a lot more episodic: starting 16 years after the end of act one, it sprawls across many years and dips into many different events. John and Emily have moved away with their daughter May (Lara Lewis) and added to their family a son, Harry (James William-Pattison). John chased the higher wages by going down the mines, which he hates compared to farm work, and Harry defies his mother by following his father, first into the mines and then into the trenches as World War I begins. You know it isn't going to end well; but then the same could be said about the show as a whole, as it is obviously is the type of story that ends with the death of one of the main characters, so when one of them starts coughing...
Goodall's English folk-influenced score is quite intricate but has a some catchy melodies—especially the title song—with lyrics that are, at their best, well-crafted, although some are more run-of-the-mill. Unfortunately, some of the lyrics are a little lost as the thin vocal sound often loses its battle with the music, especially the piano. Jean Chan's set has a nod (perhaps unintentional) to Les Mis with its wooden revolve, which dominates the stage but is set at an angle on a bed of coal with a Turneresque landscape backdrop.
This 11-strong ensemble of actor musicians (where on earth do they put them all and their instruments backstage at the Coliseum?) work together well, most taking multiple roles, playing instruments and moving furniture about in Rintoul's efficient production. Redding's powerful performance as Emily stands out particularly as a strong but believable character, but she is also able to deliver songs with the ease of natural speech. Musical director Ben Goddard gets a good full sound from his actor musicians.
While the plot is rather meandering, especially in the second half, and the issues it raises seem distant and superficially handled, a strong score, a well-paced production and committed performances come together in this worthwhile revival.
Reviewer: David Chadderton