The original London cast for The Hired Man had twenty-one members, plus orchestra: this Hornchurch revival has eleven, all of whom also play instruments. The set is relatively sparse, as befits the members of society whose lives are portrayed – there are no princes or bishops here, just grafters and their friends and families in Cumbria at the end of the nineteenth century trying to get on with their lives. That is not to say the show is devoid of politics: with increasing numbers of men working in coal mines, and an increasing number of accidents and incidents, including tragedies, a union is formed. There is some disagreement about what direction the union is taking, and let’s just say there’s a reason why this production has a fight director (Bethan Clark).
It also has a dialect coach (Louise Jones). I’ve never spent much time in Cumbria, so I can’t vouch for the authenticity of the characters’ accents, but there was the odd phrase that went over my head – I can only assume the local dialect of the time is adhered to well enough. I did wonder what relevance a show set in the countryside between 1898 and 1920 would have for an urban audience in the South-East almost a century after the period in which the show’s final scenes take place.
There is, as it happens, a fair bit of applicability to contemporary society. Sometimes it’s an indictment of the seeming lack of progress – the fight goes on for employee rights now as then, and there are as many candidates, if not more, going for each available position these days, and like these characters, there is sometimes a difference between what someone wants to do for a living and what the work available. Other times, however, it’s universal themes of young love and family life that many people are able to relate to in some form.
The second half was more engaging for me than the first, though there were scenes in both acts where the lighting could have been better, giving greater emphasis on where the characters happen to be stood or sat. An example: by keeping the entire performance space lit when a dinner table is positioned stage left, the rest of the space is noticeably bare. This is exacerbated by the orchestra in place at the back of the stage (also lit throughout) – the instruments are only brought on stage during the large ensemble numbers. I suppose one could argue that there’s nothing superfluous about the staging, and a war scene in a Great War trench in France is well-staged, as is a dramatic portrayal of a pit incident.
The music is subtle, for the most part, but very pleasant to listen to, which left me wondering if it might have worked just as well, even at the risk of a longer running time, as an entirely sung-through musical. Two songs stand out, both solo numbers. ‘If I Could’, which closes the first half, sees Emily (Lauryn Redding) express multiple emotions, torn as she is between Jackson (Lloyd Gorman) and John (Oliver Hembrough). In the second half, John asks ‘What Would You Say To Your Son?’ after Harry (James William-Pattison) decides he’s going to work in a coal mine against his mother’s wishes.
It’s not often that the costumes are overkill, but they are just a little bit here – these are people in poverty and yet some of the characters are dressed like the gentry that don’t represent. The sound design (Chris Murray) is exquisite and flawless throughout. It is difficult, if not impossible, ultimately not to care for these characters, on both individual and collective levels. It’s not going to send audiences out on the celebratory highs of some of Hornchurch’s previous musical revivals, such as Made in Dagenham or Priscilla Queen of the Desert, but this is a beautiful and poignant show, even if I think Billy Elliot supersedes The Hired Man as the best British musical in however many years.
Review by Chris Omaweng
Based on the stirring novel by Melvyn Bragg first published in 1969, The Hired Man was turned into a musical in 1984. The production features a superb score of rousing foot stomping rhythms and soaring choruses by the award-winning composer Howard Goodall (Bend It Like Beckham, Love Story).
The cast includes Jon Bonner (The Commitments, UK tour); Lloyd Gorman (Sunny Afternoon, Harold Pinter Theatre); Oliver Hembrough (Insignificance, Arcola Theatre); TJ Holmes (Two Gentlemen of Verona, Shakespeare’s Globe & Liverpool Everyman); Lucy Keirl (The Crucible, UK tour); Lara Lewis (Daisy Pulls It Off, Charing Cross Theatre); Sufia Manya (Miss Littlewood, Royal Shakespeare Company); Samuel Martin (The Taming of the Shrew, Shakespeare’s Globe); Lauryn Redding (Oliver Twist, Hull Truck); Tom Self (Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch) and James William-Pattison (Once, Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch / New Wolsey Theatre).
The Hired Man is directed by the Queen’s Theatre’s Artistic Director Douglas Rintoul (In Basildon, Made in Dagenham, The Crucible), with design by Jean Chan, musical director Ben Goddard, movement by Jane Gibson, lighting design by Prema Mehta and sound design by Chris Murray.
Book by Melvyn Bragg, with music and lyrics by Howard Goodall
Director Douglas Rintoul
Designer Jean Chan
Musical Director Ben Goddard
Movement Director Jane Gibson
Lighting Designer Prema Mehta
Sound Designer Chris Murray
Casting Director Matthew Dewsbury
Pennington / Ensemble Jon Bonner
Jackson Lloyd Gorman
John Oliver Hembrough
Seth / Ensemble TJ Holmes
Sally / Ensemble Lucy Keirl
May / Ensemble Lara Lewis
Ensemble Sufia Manya
Isaac / Ensemble Samuel Martin
Emily Lauryn Redding
Ensemble / Show MD Tom Self
Harry / Ensemble James William-Pattison
27 Apr – 18 May 2019
A Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch and Hull Truck Theatre production in association with Oldham Coliseum Theatre
27 Apr – 18 May | Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch
23 May – 15 Jun | Hull Truck Theatre
20 Jun – 6 Jul | Oldham Coliseum Theatre