Touring – reviewed at the Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch
From the Landor to the Mercury to the Union, via the NYMT and all-star Cadogan Hall concerts, there’s no doubting that Howard Goodall’s British folk musical The Hired Man is one of my all-time faves. Musically, it is so beautiful that you can’t really argue against the marketing material claims that it is “the best British musical in 40 years” (though I might demur and say Top 5).
It is now the turn of Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch and Hull Truck Theatre to revive the show, some 35 years old now, in association with Oldham Coliseum Theatre. And Douglas Rintoul’s fully actor-musician production is brimming with good ideas which serve the material well, teasing out a universality to its message which can sometimes feel hemmed into its Cumbria setting.
Melvyn Bragg’s book is based on his own novel and draws on his own knowledge to tell a tale of turn-of-the-century hardship in rural England. But from the cultural specificity here, the musings of the nature of love in marriage speak to us all. The raised revolve that dominates the stage is key here, a device that can both unite and separate as it turns, and a flexible enough space to take us from lonely hillsides to wartorn trenches to treacherous pits.
Jean Chan’s design is strongest when letting the abstract bleakness of its backdrop do the talking. An additional cloth suggesting a hilly skyline feels overly fussy and there’s a touch too much colour in the costuming for the impoverished lifestyles being portrayed. Prema Mehta’s lighting is similarly most effective away from the gels, power coming from the balance between light and dark as the Tallentire family battle through.
Casting director Matthew Dewsbury has assembled a very strong cast to take us on this journey. Lauryn Redding’s Emily is excellent, spirited passion thwarted into disillusionment but pragmatic throughout – the timejump may come after the interval but you see her visibly mature in the self-realisation of the gorgeous ‘If I Could’. And Oliver Hembrough is achingly good as John, unafraid to layer gentleness and fragility into his both his characterisation and singing (his ‘No Choir of Angels’ with Redding is stellar), saving booming strength for the most crucial of moments.
And across the ensemble, there’s beautifully observed work all over the place. The delicate humour of Lucy Keirl’s Sally, the sweetness of Lara Lewis’ May with her superb cello work, Tom Self’s expert onstage MDing… The Hired Man might perhaps disappoint those looking for the bombast of a large-scale musical but in its subtle portrait of a slice of social history, there’s something more intriguing and moving here.
Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes (with interval)
Photos: Mark Sepple
The Hired Man is booking at the Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch until 18th May, then plays Hull Truck Theatre (23 May – 15 June) and Oldham Coliseum Theatre (20 June – 6 July).
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