Girlfriend suggested we watch the Hired Man, merely described to me as “a musical”. Not much to go on, but it was co-produced by the mighty Oldham Coliseum, so I was up for it. Turns out it is a Howard Goodall musical (he’s done a lot of worthy things in music, but I mainly know him for composing the theme tunes to Red Dwarf) based on a novel by Melvyn Bragg. I love Melvyn Bragg. It’s historical, and given how long Bragg’s been presenting In Our Time on Radio 4, I’m guessing it’s well researched.
This is definitely a musical of two halves. The first, which gives the show its name, is about poor people in Cumbria trying to get work each day: this could be in the fields or the mines, but they have to barter their prices and really graft. At this point, all I can tell is that it’s in an indeterminate “olden days”, and the specific time doesn’t really matter.
But it’s fun. You get a sense of the struggle that people went through (okay, not really fun, then, but you know what I mean), specifically centered about a family. My first issue is that we don’t really know until after the interval that this is a family with two (nearly) grown kids. For now, it’s husband and wife (John – played by Oliver Hembrough – and Emily, Lauryn Redding), along with a mischievous rolling stone – Jackson (Lloyd Gorman) – who comes between them with his amorous overtures.
The second half is concerned with what I presume is the first world war. The programme tells me the initial setting was 1898 Cumbria, so this is a leap forward in time. So maybe the kids weren’t yet born in the first act. I feel they could have done a better job of communicating the time, as they do it again at the end, when the war has been over, and a girl who was single before the interval has been married for 15 or so years, and John and Emily are returning to their village after a long time away.
As well as the narrative leaps in time, the songs didn’t bowl me over. They carry the story along well enough, which I guess is the point, but the secondary – still important – thing is for the songs to be awesome. Some were pretty hummable, and you got one duet with nicely overlapping lines, and one or two songs with multiple simultaneous vocals, but this wasn’t West Side Story in its complexity of vocal arrangements. You did get some excellent lead-chorus interchanges, so maybe I’m being a tad harsh. The instrumental arrangements were pretty lush, being what I assume were popular instruments in Cumbria at the time: violin, piano, cello, double bass, oboe and clarinet.
If the writing of the musical didn’t blow me away, the performance actually did. The cast balanced singing and traditional acting very well, performing with passion and chemistry. What’s more, the cast had their instruments on (the great revolving turntable) stage for the massed numbers. It’s not only impressive to see people playing and singing in a musical, but I’m in awe at the fact that someone can sing and trot about on a rotating stage while wielding a double bass. Good work Gorman.
There were some slight technical hiccups. For the first half, it felt like the male voices were being drowned out by the instruments, something they fixed for after the interval. This did lead to an unintentionally effective moment where John is singing a song of woe as Emily and Jackson are drawn toward each other. John’s words being drowned out, though we miss the detail, does actually lend the scene extra poignancy.
I also really like the fact that, much like Miss Saigon, this is a war-focused musical that hits you with some hard blows. Key characters die, and there are some fittingly dark moments. These, and other moments of peril, are communicated very well using what is a minimalist set. This is a co-production between Queen’s Theatre in Hornchurch, Hull Truck Theatre and the Oldham Coliseum. I don’t know who does what in this trio, but it’s pulled off with aplomb. I’ve seen a lot of excellent plays at the Coliseum, and appreciate that the group have put this on YouTube for now. Watch it for yourself:
(Eep. I might have been a bit late on the sharing!) And it might be worth donating to one or more of these, as obviously the arts are getting hit hard at the moment (here in Leeds, the council has threatened that museums, galleries and libraries could all get shut down as the city runs out of money. And this is apparently a city that’s doing well):
To donate to the Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch, visit www.queens-theatre.co.uk/join-support/donate/
To donate to the Hull Truck Theatre Future Fund visit www.hulltruck.co.uk/donate
To donate to Oldham Coliseum Theatre visit www.coliseum.org.uk/your-coliseum-needs-you