Oldham Coliseum –until 6 July 2019
It’s some 35 years since The Hired Man was first performed in London’s West End. The year was 1984 and Britain was experiencing high levels of unemployment alongside a long-standing miners’ strike – the show ran for just five months. At this time, West End theatre-goers found comfort in the glitter and escapism of Starlight Express and Cats. They weren’t ready to appreciate the raw, emotive working class sentiment of The Hired Man.
Now in a major new revival by Oldham Coliseum, Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch and Hull Truck, The Hired Man comes to Oldham. Tapping into English folk music and Cumbrian heritage, far removed from the cheesy glitz of the transatlantic musical model, it easily shows itself to be one of the most well-crafted British musicals of all time.
Set during the first part of the 20th century, The Hired Man tells the passionate story of John Tallentire and his wife Emily, a young couple and their enduring struggle to carve out a living from the land. Perhaps most poignantly, the piece is inspired by writer Melvyn Bragg’s personal account of his grandparents’ tough existence in the Cumbrian fells at the turn of the 20th century.
Howard Goodall’s tight musical arrangement is handled beautifully by the 11-strong actor-musician ensemble – muted trumpets, folksy fiddles and sweet and soaring vocals. This is a well-paced production – set to the backdrop of farming culture and the harsh work conditions of the Lake District. Act One focuses essentially on the love triangle plot between Emily and her husband John, and her long-standing admirer Jackson. Act Two appears more episodic, with the pace cleverly reflecting the uncertainty of the characters’ futures. Their lives knocked by history – the birth of trade unions, the First World War and mines collapse…it’s stirring, and a sense of impending doom looms.
Under Douglas Rintoul’s dynamic direction, the ensemble are all strong – demonstrating versatility they multi-role, play instruments and move the set – the whole production feels assured and well executed. Lauren Redding gives an outstanding performance as Emily – committed and believable – with a beautiful singing voice which she delivers with the ease of a natural Northern tone.
This is a lively and refreshing Northern musical which offers us an insight into the life of rural communities at the beginning of the twentieth century.