Marking the first major concert presentation of the show in over 20 years, The Hired Man in concert saw Howard Goodall and Melvyn Bragg’s 1984 musical take over the elegant surroundings of Cadogan Hall, for a glorious evening celebrating one of the all-time greats of British musical theatre writing. With a boutique orchestra conducted by Andrew Linnie, an ensemble of over 20 singers and a lead cast of bona fide West End and Broadway stars, it was a powerfully effective treatment of the material.
The Hired Man is based on Bragg’s 1969 novel, part of his Cumbrian Trilogy, following the lives of labourer and miner John Tallentire and his wife Emily as they battle first the hardship of agricultural life in a fast-industrialising world and then the impact of the First World War on their whole community. And supporting it, Goodall’s music and lyrics draws on English folk tradition, as well as his own melodious style, to create a soulful, stirring score that lingers long in the mind with its hummability and heartbreak.
For this concert, director Samuel Hopkins was able to secure John Owen-Jones (fresh from reprising the role of Valjean on Broadway) and Jenna Russell (recently in Doctor Faustus) and he couldn’t have picked a better pair for John and Emily. Being able to hear Owen-Jones use all the colours of the subtler side of his voice demonstrated just how formidable a leading man he really is. And there are simply few actors in the country as good at acting through song as Russell, even singing from a book behind a lectern she was just unbearably heartfelt.
On songs like ‘No Choir of Angels’ and ‘If I Could’ (joined on the latter by Matthew Seadon-Young’s powerfully voiced Jackson, the man in the middle of their marriage), these were moments of musical theatre perfection. The swell of the strings, Mark Etherington’s assured piano, the harmonies of the chorus, Bragg’s narration of his own story – the combination was just hugely seductive. And with strong support from the likes of Stewart Clarke (whose parents Paul Clarkson and Julia Hills actually created the roles of John and Emily in the original production), Evelyn Hoskins and Nigel Richards, The Hired Man has never sounded better.
Review by Ian Foster
West End stars Jenna Russell and John Owen-Jones lead the cast in the roles of John and Emily. Owen-Jones is currently performing as Jean Valjean on Broadway, while Russell was most recently seen in Jamie Lloyd’s production of Doctor Faustus at the Duke of York’s Theatre.
Matthew Seadon-Young (Billy Elliot, Urinetown) will appear in the role of Jackson, while John’s brothers Isaac and Seth will be played by Nigel Richards (Phantom of the Opera) and Stewart Clarke (Assassins) respectively. Clarke’s parents, actors Paul Clarkson and Julia Hills, created the roles of John and Emily in the original production of The Hired Man.
Completing the front line as May is Evelyn Hoskins, currently appearing in Alan Ayckbourn’s Hero’s Welcome in New York and recently seen in Carrie at Southwark Playhouse and Wonder.land at the National Theatre.
As previously announced, the concert is narrated by Lord Melvyn Bragg himself, upon whose novel the musical was based. Bragg is perhaps best known to London audiences as the face of The Southbank Show for over three decades on BBC and ITV.
Set in the agricultural and industrial heartlands of Cumbria at the turn of the 20th century, The Hired Man tells the tale of John and Emily Tallentire as they go from two young lovers setting off in married life together to parents struggling to eke out an existence for their family as war looms across the continent. As the 100th anniversary of the first world war is commemorated and with communities in industrial towns across the country struggling to hold onto their way of life, this powerful tale of labour and love is more poignant now than ever.
The Hired Man