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Review of The Hired Man at the Union Theatre

The Hired ManAs a huge admirer of the music of Howard Goodall and having seen several previous productions I was very much looking forward to another opportunity to see this evocative musical adaptation of Melvyn Bragg’s 1969 powerful first novel in the trilogy of the Tallentire family. The Hired Man starts at the turn of the 19th century, painting the harsh and difficult times when men & women would travel around seeking ever diminishing work as agricultural labourers simply to earn barely enough to live. It charts the immense changes brought about by the demise of farm work as young men swapped a life of fresh air and open fields for the ‘Blackrock’ of coal mines under the sea. Many men rarely saw any day light at all during winter months and the work and conditions were filthy and very dangerous. World War One added further horrors upon the already struggling poor and we see how the union movement began seeking to protect and improve the lives of working men and women. Women held families together eking out meagre wages with little company from husbands. And so the scene is set for stress and strife for the Tallentire family.

We meet John Tallentire at Cockermouth hiring fair in Cumbria in 1898. He is desperate to find a home for his newly pregnant wife and himself and ‘takes a coin’ from Crossbridge farmer, Pennington. Tallentire is sensitively played by Ifan Gwilym-Jones, completely capturing a working man’s pride in his job which though admiral, has the negative consequence of making him old before his time. This newly-wed couple become middle-aged in attitude in just a few months. Into this scenario comes restless maverick Pennington’s son Jackson, played by Luke Kelly, who every woman in the village is enraptured by including John’s wife Emily. Determined as she is to resist his charms she is gradually worn down by the monotony of life and against her better judgement she eventually gives in.

Rebecca Gilliland plays Emily perfectly. First full of joy and excitement in building a new life with her husband, then full of embarrassment and regret for not being strong enough to resist the advances of Jackson, and in Act II and 15 years older, strong-willed enough to insist on working at the mill and fiercely protective of her family. Gilliland and Gwilym-Jones are well matched and vocally both rise to the vocal demands of Goodall’s beautiful score.

Gwilym-Jones is particularly vocally impressive in his first act realisation of betrayal in ‘What A Fool I’ve Been’. Gilliland was born to sing this score and her beautiful voice soars, haunting and compelling throughout, particularly in her act one song of realisation of cause and consequence ‘If I Could’. Their duets ‘Now For The First Time’ at the beginning of their married life and the very beautiful ‘No Choir Of Angels’ at the end, are truly affecting and poignant.

Other strong performances are from Jonathan Carlton, charismatic and vocally strong as John’s brother Seth Tallentire; Jack McNeill as John and Emily’s headstrong young teenage son Harry Tallentire who goes to war against his mother’s wishes; and Christopher Lyne who plays Pennington and several other older characters over the span of some 2 decades!. Matthew Chase, Laurel Dougall and Lori Mclare give notable and strong performances in the ensemble, standing out for all the right reasons.

One of the most wonderful things about Goodall’s musical writing is the sense of history and community he evokes. His music is earthy, rich and vibrant, drawn from traditional English folk music and tradition and feels deeply ‘connected ‘and strong both in melody and rhythm. From the outset, it creates an immediate sense of community and determination as we hear the opening song in the distance, which then builds until the community is at full throttle in front of us. Goodall’s’ score is at its most lush in the ensemble numbers where he encapsulates all shades of human emotion from determination and despair to rage and joy. Whether at the hiring fair, hunting or drinking in Act 1 or at the gutsy union meeting, in the trenches or down a mine trembling in fear, his music powerfully conveys the requisite emotion.

The ensemble singing is wonderful throughout so it is, therefore, a matter of regret that some solo and duet singing is unfortunately hampered by a lack of projection. Some singers are drowned by the fine small 3-piece ensemble playing at the side of the space under the stairs – Richard Bates as Musical Director and on piano, Sophia Goode on violin, and Dominic Veall on cello. There is also a lot of dialogue above underscore and it
was honestly very difficult to hear much of what was said as well as some of what was sung. If there is no amplification I wonder whether the band could have been placed at the back of the stage rather than on the same level as the cast? Something to ponder on for the future as it seems to be a niggly issue for many of the wonderful productions here at the Union Theatre.

Brendan Matthew’s direction and Charlotte Tooth’s choreography of the horrors of the war in the trenches and also down in the coal mines in Act 2 were particularly moving and very sensitively and well done indeed. However, it is genuinely puzzling that absolutely no one wears shoes throughout the entire show, especially as it spans nearly two decades and covers farming, mining and war. It simply looks peculiar and was particularly strange when Seth returns on crutches from war with a prosthetic leg with a boot on, yet is still bare footed on his undamaged leg! It would be understandable to perhaps start with no shoes, but as they all work, earn money and become less poor, surely the first thing anyone would buy is footwear of some sort?! It was unnecessarily distracting.

It also has to be asked why everyone is wearing exactly the same clothes 15 years on! A change of blouse, shirt, skirt, waistcoats surely would have been possible? It’s also very confusing when characters who have supposedly died, appear in the next scene as a different character but still wearing the clothes of their dead character! It was noticeable that the oldest and most experienced cast member did make an effort to change his costume and look! Niggles about sound, feet and costumes aside it was overall a wonderful evening!

This is a vibrant and committed production of The Hired Man. A wonderful British musical by two great writers, directed with very much love and performed by a talented young cast. Definitely worth a visit to Sasha Regan’s wonderful Union Theatre!

3 Star Review

Review by Catherine Françoise

Based on the novel by Melvyn Bragg, THE HIRED MAN centres around the lives of a simple country family facing the turn of the century and the darker times that lay before them. When love, misguided affairs and war come into play, this makes for a stunning and romantic score filled with unforgettable melodies from one of Britain’s most popular musical theatre composers Howard Goodall.

Following the success of last year’s Howard Goodall season, the Union Theatre are thrilled to be bringing this beautiful tale of love and loss to life.

John Tallentire – Ifan Gwilym-Jones
Emily Tallentire – Rebecca Gilliland
Jackson Pennington – Luke Kelly
May – Kara Taylor Alberts
Harry – Jack McNeill
Sally Wrangham – Megan Armstrong
Isaac Tallentire – Sam Peggs
Seth Tallentire – Jonathan Carlton
Pennington – Christopher Lyne

Ensemble: Matthew Chase, Laurel Dougall, Aaron Davey, Rebecca Withers, Nick Britain and Lori Mclare

Producer – Sasha Regan
Director – Brendan Matthew
Choreographer – Charlotte Tooth
Musical Director/Orchestrations – Richard Bates
Production Designer – Justin Williams
Assistant Designer – Jonny Rust
Stage Manager – Martin Brady
Lighting Designer – Stuart Glover
Fight Director/Dialect Coach – Conor Neaves
Casting Director – Adam Braham
Costume Designer – Carrie-Ann Stein

19th July – 12th August 2017


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