The musical 'The Hired Man' by Melvyn Bragg and Howard Goodall comes from part one of Melvyn Bragg's Cumbrian Trilogy. The novel and musical both offer a great sense of tough lives endured and terrific emotional drive. Almost twenty years after Bragg's novel was published to great literary acclaim Bragg joined forces with composer Howard Goodall to create what was billed at the time (1984) as The Hired Man – The Great British Musical. The press reviews were very favourable and although it had a relatively short run at the Astoria Theatre in the West End (164 perfs) it has become a popular musical for amateur and professional companies because of the gripping storyline. The piece also contains some very strong characters and rousing musical numbers that just grab you alongside the more poignant pieces. It has opportunities for a large ensemble and I've even seen a production with a real whippet on stage. The whippet didn't sing.
The Hired Man is an emotional roller-coaster but not without humour in the dialogue. At the Little Theatre in Leicester we find Leicester Operatic Players performing their thrilling version from 21st April - 25th. Considering that the original show started life at the Haymarket Theatre in Leicester before transferring to the Astoria it's delightful that it should come back to Leicester in this way.
It is an excellent production and with a sensible size of cast in twenty-five meaning that it doesn't ever seem overly crammed on the relatively small stage at the Little Theatre. The set design is a blend of artistically realised and ever practical with some effective projection. As we are engaged wholesale in the musical action unfolding and swept along with the character's lives the scene changes just happen with a simplicity and fluidity that allows total audience and cast immersion in the show.
The story concerns newly-weds Emily and John Tallentire (Alexandra Elliott and Ashley Bright) and is set in the rural area around a fictional town called Crossbridge. The play opens in 1898 high up on the fells at the annual hiring fair where men and women offer themselves for hire as farm labourers and John is given employment by farmer Pennington. (David Lovell).
John becomes obsessed with his work to the neglect of his wife Emily. Emily has noticed Pennington's son Jackson (Tom Urch) in a recent wrestling match and succumbs to a brief affair with him. She is torn between the two men and John finds out about the affair whilst on a fox hunting trip with his brother Isaac (Neil Prior). John sees them embracing and knocks out Jackson.
Jackson then joins the army to go to India as he realises he will never be a hundred percent with Emily.
The musical play covers two periods in the couple's lives and we get to meet Harry and May the two children born of John and Emily. May (Laura Carvell) is a very naïve girl of sixteen and Harry (Nick Reid) a brave but occasionally foolish boy of thirteen. Against his parents wishes he gets a job down the pit. As time passes the Great War of 1914-1918 begins and John, Isaac and Jackson all serve in the armed forces. Even young Harry, pressurised by the recruiting campaign and a sense of foolish duty tries to pass himself off as older so he can join up. Isaac loses a leg in the trenches but is saved by Jackson. Eventually both Jackson and Harry lose their lives. Emily declares her love for John in a beautiful duet and after the war John goes to work down the mines. Emily has developed tuberculosis whilst working in a factory. The couple debate whether they might be better going back to the land. A sudden mining accident brings new drama to the family. John survives and goes home to find a new tragedy awaiting him. He decides to go back to the land where he started.
Throughout the whole show the demanding choral work is spot on and no better realised than in the opening number, The Song of The Hired Man. Considering that it is dialect based the lyrics come across very clearly from the whole cast. This is not something that can always be said of amateur musicals where the sound of the song sounds tuneful but the words themselves are an unintelligible mush.
Ashley Bright and Alexandra Elliot are perfect as Emily and John Tallentire. Both are clearly accomplished actors and singers and this comes across especially well in the more tender songs such as 'Now For The First Time' and 'No Choir Of Angels'. Elliott could have walked off the professional stage into this production. Her voice is crystal clear and she has a great depth and warmth of character to her Cumbrian Emily.
Neil Prior is characterful and enjoyable as the lazy yet lovable brother Isaac and is particularly sympathetic in the scenes after the war is over. Prior holds it together well in the song 'Get Up And Go Lad' where it appears the cunning fox ran off with one of his verses. I'm sure it will return with it intact for the rest of the week. David Toft makes the older brother Seth a very human character as he moves from union activist to pacifist in the journey of the show. He is especially moving in the 'War Song' and brings out the desperate sadness of the human waste in the war.
Unlike some shows there is no real bad boy in the piece excepting that of suitor Jackson Pennington who has the misfortune of falling in love with a married woman. Tom Urch has a super voice as Pennington and a lot of presence on stage. His 'Hear Your Voice' is one of the most moving moments of the show.
Laura Carvell and Nick Reid as May and Harry Tallentire both light up the stage at the beginning of the second act. Lots of youthfulness and energy. Carvell's song 'You Never See The Sun' is a most original and authentic rendition. Her exuberance shines out and establishes itself in what is quite a thinly drawn character. Similarly, newcomer to LOPs Nick Reid, makes a very likeable and confident Harry Tallentire whose taste for adventure takes him to the most dangerous of places. This young man is another of the cast whose every word is heard even with the Cumbrian accent. It makes such a difference.
There is a good proportion of ensemble work in The Hired Man and its style of presenting a story through song and dialogue has been seen historically as a close precursor to the 'sung through' styles that became more prevalent in the later 1980s and onwards in such shows as Les Misèrables. The set pieces that really stand out in this production are 'The Song of The Hired Men' 'Get Up and Go Lad' 'The Union Song: Men of Stone' 'Farewell Song' and 'War Song'. Throughout the singing is very strong and the placement of the characters in the last three works very well indeed. A feeling of genuine groupings is achieved in the direction and choreography, not just a cardboard cut-out cast on stage. The gentler 'Day Follows Day' seems slightly lost in the piece although it was introduced into the work as a new song and considered a better link after the battle scenes back in a revised version created in 2004 by Howard Goodall.
The small orchestra of five under the musical direction of Gill Hawkes and James Stevens are note perfect with folk song connected instruments, Trumpet, Piano, Harpsichord, Harp and Double Bass.
Overall, an exciting and emotionally engaging amateur production of The Hired Man expertly and passionately directed by Steve Elliott at the Little Theatre in Leicester. Highly recommended.
The Hired Man runs until Saturday 25th April.
Photographs credit and copyright Poyner & Mee
Review originally written for Sardines Magazine online reviews (22nd April)