Sunday, 23 June 2019

Review: The Hired Man (Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch/Hull Truck Theatre/Oldham Coliseum Theatre)

Thursday 20th June 2019
Oldham Coliseum

On Thursday, I was at Oldham Coliseum for the press night of The Hired Man, on behalf of North Manchester FM. I played the shorter version of my review on this week’s Hannah’s Bookshelf, but here’s the blog version...

Photo credit: Mark Sepple

Howard Goodall’s 1984 musical adaptation of Melvyn Bragg’s novel, The Hired Man, comes to Oldham in a new revival. Co-produced by Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch, Hull Truck Theatre and Oldham Coliseum Theatre, this production is directed by Douglas Rintoul and Jean Chan.

The Hired Man opens in Cumberland in 1898, at a hiring fair. The cast take to the stage, singing out their desire to become hired men and work on the land. One man, John Tallentire, emerges triumphant, being offered sixteen shillings to work for a man named Pennington. Newly-married John is happily waiting for his wife, Emily, to join him, as the job includes a cottage, where he hopes they will be able to begin their life together.

The Hired Man is the story of John and Emily’s life together, told through musical numbers that offer snapshots that span over twenty years. It is the story of John and Emily, but also of the world in which they live and work. John toils as an agricultural labourer, then leaves the land for the coal mines, before signing up to the army in 1914. Agriculture declines, coal mines thrive, trade unions are formed, war breaks out and ends, tragedy and disasters loom – all in the course of two acts.

Photo credit: Mark Sepple

This method of storytelling is unusual for musical theatre. On the one hand, it lends the narrative an ‘epic’ or ‘saga’ quality, moving the audience through the vicissitudes of early twentieth-century working class life, and the changing fortunes of the central characters. On the other, it glosses over the developments and motivations in individual relationships. Emily’s relationship with Jackson Pennington, for instance, is presented through a couple of scenes and songs, but the complexity of emotional dilemma is obscured.

While the story moves quickly through two decades, Oliver Hembrough (as John) and Lauryn Redding (as Emily) do an excellent job of conveying the change in age and circumstance of the central couple, without makeup or significant costume change. Hembrough’s John moves from the enthusiasm of youth to an obsessive dedication to toil, to an almost stoic insistence on just getting through the business of life in a way that is both believable and engaging. Months (and sometimes years) pass between numbers, and so it is a credit to the performances that these transitions aren’t too abrupt or jarring.

However, it is Redding’s Emily that really carries the passage of time. Beginning as an effusive and optimistic young woman (apparently very young, as the number ‘Now for the First Time’ tells us), Emily gains maturity, experience and something of hard edge before our very eyes. Redding performs this expertly – though I was left feeling I wanted to see much more of Emily’s perspective. The Hired Man is very much focused on the life of the eponymous character, but an interesting counter-narrative – that of Emily – is hinted at, and I couldn’t help but wonder about some of the things that are left unexplored (e.g. Emily’s later decision to work in a bobbin factory). In many ways, this is credit to Redding’s strong and commanding performance.

Photo credit: Mark Sepple

The cast are all actor-musicians, and so bring instruments onto the stage in various combinations throughout the show. This lends a spontaneity to proceedings and gives the show an air of folk entertainment, in-keeping with the atmosphere of the music and script – but it also means that the cast is really put through its paces.

Lloyd Gorman plays Jackson Pennington – the boss’s son who falls for Emily – with a sort of hapless charm that is really rather endearing. The contrast between Jackson and John is clear, making Emily’s dilemma a plausible one. James William-Pattison and Lara Lewis are enjoyable in the second act as Harry and May, John and Emily’s children, and Samuel Martin and T.J. Holmes offer strong supporting performances as John’s brothers Isaac and Seth. While mostly offering comic relief in the first act, Holmes shines in the second as trade unionist Seth, particularly in the number ‘Men of Stone’ (an anthem to unionisation belted out with near-Bolshevik fervour by Holmes).

Photo credit: Mark Sepple

Jean Chan’s design for the production is interesting. The set is sparse, with the only backdrop being a painted screen depicting the Cumbrian countryside. The production uses a revolving stage, which is utilised to very good effect. In ensemble numbers, it creates a sense of the crowd; in duets, it moves us between differing perspectives. It is in the second act when the staging and design really comes into its own. Transporting us from a kitchen, to the trenches, to a mine shaft, to a country fair, small alterations to the set’s design belie its apparent simplicity.

The Hired Man is very much a show of two halves. The first act, which takes place entirely in the Cumbrian countryside, is in distinct contrast to the dynamic shifts of the second, in which the hidden complexities of Chan’s set design are revealed. In particular, the scenes and numbers depicting the trench warfare of WWI are very well-done, with the space around the revolving stage allowing for multiple perspectives (the men in France and Emily back at home) to appear simultaneously. This clever staging is another real strength of the production.

Photo credit: Mark Sepple

Overall, this is a very well-produced and performed production of The Hired Man. Admittedly, the story is rather sentimental in places, with some of the ‘big picture’ commentary (on the situation of the working class in the early twentieth century) seeming rather hurried. The truncated storyline can be a little frustrating at times, leaving you wanting to see more of what happened in the missing years between numbers, but this does not detract too much from a story that is both bucolic and biting. Rintoul’s capable direction, along with some first-rate performances from the cast, carry us through the story with style and charm.

If you’ve never seen a production of The Hired Man before – or even if you have! – this revival is definitely a good one to watch. I recommend this one.

The Hired Man is on at Oldham Coliseum until Saturday 6th July.

No comments:

Post a comment