The Hired Man – Review – Hull Truck Theatre
By James Robinson, May 2019
Howard Goodall’s The Hired Man was first staged in the West End in 1984, and despite a relatively short first run has since proven to be something of a robust addition to the musical theatre cannon, inspiring a number of revivals. This latest incarnation is a co-production between three prestigious regional theatres, The Queen’s Hornchurch, the Oldham Coliseum and Hull Truck.
Adapted by Melvin Bragg from his own 1969 novel, the play follows the life of a working class family in Cumbria during the first two decades of the 20th Century – a period rich in social change and historical impact. Oliver Hembrough is John Tallentire, the hired man of the title, and the action follows him through life, from first being picked up at a ‘hiring fair’ as a young man to work as a farm hand, before finding himself down the coal mines and, inevitably, seeing action in the First World War.
The story also covers the trials and tribulations of his family, wife Emily (Lauryn Redding), son Harry (James William-Pattison) and daughter May (Lara Lewis) as they contend with their own personal troubles alongside the upheavals of the era. Emily is torn between her loyalty to John and her secret longing for handsome local bad-boy Jackson (Lloyd Gorman), while her husband – a brooding, serious sort – finds himself increasingly envious of the easy-going lifestyle of his freewheeling brother Isaac (a scene-stealing turn from Samuel Martin).
The performances are especially impressive in that every character plays their own instruments, incorporating them seamlessly into every scene, often ingeniously doubling them up as stage props – a viola standing in for a whippet is particularly memorable.
The stage design, by Jean Chan, is ingenious, making the most of minimal stage furniture – usually little more than a table and chair – and a revolving stage to evoke convincingly spaces as varied as a run-down country cottage, the claustrophobic depths of a mine shaft or the wartime battlefields.
The choreography, too, by Jane Gibson (alongside ‘fight director’ Bethan Clark) is first class, the small cast filling the stage like a West End repertory company five times its size.
Most important of all, of course, is the music, the quality of which has kept The Hired Man a fan favourite for over thirty years. Goodall’s compositions hit the musical genre’s sweet-spot of not only moving the story forward but also being memorable in their own right. Their folk-inflected melodies, performed alongside traditional acoustic instruments, have an air of authenticity that is often missing from blockbuster stage productions.
This is a classy, poignant and expertly staged work of entertainment that all fans of theatre, musical or otherwise, would be wise not to miss.
images: Mark Sepple