The Hired Man is the very best of British musicals, from the original novel by Melvyn Bragg, to the outstanding lyrics and score by Howard Goodall. But more than this, it encapsulates the character of the land, the sweep of history, and the humour and warmth of the British people. This production at Hull Truck Theatre, in association with Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch and Oldham Coliseum Theatre, honours all that is traditional in the show, and presents it anew with an array of super-talented actor musicians.
From the opening song, with labourers and farmers bargaining for a job at the bi-annual hiring fair, the musical instruments are an intrinsic part of the story. Flutes are hefted onto shoulders like sacks of corn, a violin becomes a spade, and there is a cello with a very close resemblance to a whippet! So easily are the instruments woven into the characters and story that within minutes they are almost invisible. But this is a tale told through song, and whether taking their cue from folk songs or brass band marching tunes, the players produce a wonderfully balanced and textured sound, their instruments an additional mechanism with which to communicate the narrative.
The story follows the three Tallentire brothers, from their upbringing on a Cumbrian farm, through their working and personal lives. John has always wanted to farm the land, like his father before him. Isaac is a wrestler, gambler and all round charmer, never one to get tied down. Seth is the quieter one, a serious union man, who works down the mine. The main thread follows John and his new wife Emily, and their attempts to begin a new life of their own, away from the community they grew up in.
The observation of domestic rites and relationships is acute: that which usually goes on behind closed doors, and is often described by the silences and what’s not said, as much as what is. But this personal tale is set against the broader landscape of history – the changing working environment, industrialisation and the move away from farming – to the First World War and the changes that brought, including women working outside the home.
John (Oliver Hembrough) and Emily (Lauryn Redding) present the emotional journey of the piece. From wide eyed newly-weds, through the weary drudge of everyday farming life, and into the ups and downs of family life, they hold us in their hands. Redding has a raw vitality as Emily, ambitious and looking to the future, and later entranced by the wilful Jackson, his wanderlust and the promise of something exciting beyond the grey hills. Redding makes us feel every inch of her conflict in desiring freedom with Jackson against the responsibilities of home and marriage. Hembrough is wonderfully natural and has a warm voice perfectly suited to the simpler John Tallentire, but the more contained nature of his character doesn’t prevent him from fully realising the emotional impact, from young love to piercing grief. ‘What would you say to your son?’ is beautifully rendered.
Directed by Dougas Rintoul, this is very much a company show, with many actors taking on multiple roles. Jon Bonner, who plays Pennington, Blacklock and various other roles, is also a very skilled musician, and his trumpet playing at key moments is haunting and poignant. Samuel Martin as the happy go lucky Isaac brings out lighter moments with some earthy humour and a sideways look at life, “‘Good’ is a very tricky article”’, and his rousing ‘Get up and go now’. Lloyd Gorman portrays a subtlety in the self-confident Jackson that is not always apparent, torn between being his own man and his love for Emily. Lucy Keirl as Sally is a breath of fresh air, an innocent looking to make the best match she can, and Lara Lewis as May has a lovely vulnerability and charm as Emily’s daughter.
The music carries us from one scene to another, and a rotating stage allows the action to be continuous and rarely interrupted by anything more than the occasional prop to help set a scene.
Designer Jean Chan uses a beautiful background cloth, somewhere between misty mountain and river, with wonderful lighting by Prema Mehta, to create a painterly, textured, effect, changing with the light and weather, like the landscape. The lighting design is particularly striking in the scenes underground in the mine, and later in creating the fighting in the trenches.
The Hired Man is a circular tale, ending as it begins, with John seeking work as a hired farm hand. On a wider scale, it reflects the seasonal aspects of nature, and of how things change from one generation to another. It is sweeping, majestic, and raw in its depiction of the harsh realities of life in the late 19th century, and an uplifting and heart-warming tale of the strength of love and friendship. With a stunning score, and so truthfully acted by this talented cast, it is an absolute joy to witness. So, throw me a luckpenny, will you?
The Hired Man runs at The Heron, Hull until Sat 15th June.
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