Union Theatre, London – until 12 August 2017
“We’re not hurried, or flurried, or worried, for ourselves.”
The Hired Man remains one of my all-time favourite British musicals, the lusciousness of Howard Goodall‘s score simply gorgeous to listen and so any opportunity to hear it is one gladly taken. The Union Theatre’s Goodall festival a couple of years ago featured the dreaming, Love Story, and Girlfriends and you wouldn’t put it past them to host the fringe premiere of Bend It Like Beckham sometime soon, but it is the show based on Melvyn Bragg‘s novel that takes the spotlight for now.
Set at the turn of the previous century in the unforgiving rural landscape of Cumbria, The Hired Man himself is the hard-working John Tallentire, a man who will turn to any aspect of working the land – above in the field or below in the mines – to support his family, but in difficult times and with the Great War approaching, life is tough. From love triangles to family tragedies, organised labour disputes to the brutal realities of war, a laugh-a-minute musical comedy this is not.
What it is though, is a beautiful testament to the spirit of community and this is something that sings loudly from Brendan Matthew’s barefoot production. Charlotte Tooth’s choreography might initially seem a little over-animated but you soon realise it is less a realistic representation of hard-bitten rural life and more an expression of the pleasure in coming together, of harmonising with your fellow man or woman. Justin Williams’s strikingly effective design brings the right rustic touch too.
Performances are strong – Ifan Gwilym-Jones’ John is an appropriately decent but slightly staid presence, Luke Kelly’s Jackson is handsome enough to justify considering whether to leave your spouse and kids and Rebecca Gilliland as John’s wife Emily is gently compelling as she’s torn between the two. The production’s only main weakness comes in their audability whilst singing. Richard Bates’ musical direction has the singers unmiked and in the many choral passages, the sound is glorious but even in the intimacy of this theatre, solo singers were frequently struggling to be heard. A little tinkering with the sound balance and some beefed-up projection should fix things to match the level of the rest of this very good production.