The Hired Man
nytheatre.com review by David Gordon
June 11, 2008
In 1969, Melvyn Bragg wrote a novel, The Hired Man. It told the story of a young couple, John and Emily Tallentire, trying to make a life for themselves at the turn of the century in rural Cumbria. From illicit affairs to World War I, mine pit disasters, and the founding of a labor union, The Hired Man spans more than 20 years.
It's an unlikely source for a musical—the history of working class farmers (the title stems from the yearly hiring of men for a few agricultural jobs at the top of the show)—yet Bragg went along with composer Howard Goodall's persistence in trying to adapt it. The musical premiered in 1984, receiving rave reviews and a brief West End staging produced by Andrew Lloyd Webber.
In 2007, New Perspectives Theatre Company revived it for a small regional tour of England, which is now playing at 59E59 as part of their Brits Off Broadway Festival. Directed by Daniel Buckroyd and featuring a cast of eight with two doubling as musicians (there's a piano on stage, as well), The Hired Man is a wonderful production.
Richard Colvin and Claire Sundin have terrific chemistry as John and Emily. He's a stronger singer (she seems to strain a bit to hit the high notes), but their performances are so convincing that the gentleman behind me gasped at nearly every plot twist.
One such twist, which features the spectacular Simon Pontin as Jackson and his romance with Emily, shows where Bragg's script falters. In attempting to shrink what amounts to months or years into a more compressed period, a significant amount of development is missing, rendering some of the left-field twists confusing, if not entirely surprising.
But those are the only flaws of the production, which features a distinct, melodic, and very hummable score by Howard Goodall (whose previous credits include the theme songs of BBC comedies such as Mr. Bean, Red Dwarf, and The Vicar of Dibley. Bragg's script does contain a number of very funny lines. (My particular favorite: "Look at my uncle Geoff, joined the Army, came back: completely changed." "How?" "Dead.")
Daniel Buckroyd's simple staging lets the score and dialogue speak for itself, without adding too much movement or choreography (though what little choreography there is, by Katie Howell, is quite fine). The simplicity extends to Juliet Shillingford's set and costumes and Mark Dymock's lighting.
The Hired Man is an epic, melodramatic piece on a tiny scale and that works in its favor. It's not your typical, overblown English spectacle that relies on special effects more than material. With gorgeous choral melodies and some very skilled performances, despite being the slightest bit too long, The Hired Man is worth a viewing.