Melvyn Bragg’s The Hired Man was introduced to the world as the first part of a trilogy of novels (preceding A Place in England and Kingdom Come); set in his native Cumbria, it was first published 50 years ago. In 1984 – 15 years after the novel’s publication – Bragg adapted it for the stage, with music and lyrics from composer Howard Goodall. Since its first run 35 years ago, The Hired Man has enjoyed several revivals – and has been given the opportunity to develop over time (its 2003 Salisbury Playhouse production saw the inclusion of a new song (Day Follows Day), for example. The most recent revival has been put together by Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch, Hull Truck Theatre and Oldham Coliseum Theatre; it will have limited engagements at each venue over the course of a brief tour.
John Tallentire is the eponymous protagonist, setting up home with his new wife Emily and presenting himself at the Crossbridge hiring fair – John is hired by Pennington to work the land, while Emily stays at home and awaits the birth of their first child. Early on in their time at Crossbridge, however, Emily attracted the attention of Pennington’s son Jackson; as she becomes more disenchanted with her life after May’s birth, an affair becomes increasingly tempting. Without wanting to spoil too much of the story for you, the second act leaps forward quite a number of years, charting the First World War and ending in around 1920.
Whilst it is pleasant enough, on the whole it is a little bland. Trying to cover such a long period of time in two 60-minute acts is slightly overambitious; firstly, other than during the World War One sections it’s unclear as to what any of the years actually are (it would be helpful to at least know the year at the very beginning), and then time passes in fits & starts – there’s no sense of how long these gaps are, more often than not you just find yourself realising that some sort of time jump has occurred. There’s no possibility of going into real depth, or see relationships developing over time (Emily & Jackson barely have one full conversation before they start tormenting themselves over their love for each other), and as a result it’s difficult to connect with the characters or invest yourself in a particular outcome.
Goodall’s score is rich and soaring, performed expertly by the cast of actor-musicians; this does at least add a bit of vibrancy, as all instruments (even the double bass) are moved about to be played – and a cello even doubles as Seth’s greyhound in certain scenes! The multi-part vocal harmonies are particularly beautiful, with some stunning a cappella moments.
The sparse set design (Jean Chan) allows scenes to progress smoothly, with the costumes doing most of the work setting the scene; life in Cumbria and the trenches are clearly distinguishable, and these scenes work seamlessly together. The revolve is a little overused, making a few moments feel oddly static as the company stand there and get rotated around, though it is a good tool to have available at certain points. There’s some lively movement direction at times from Jane Gibson – the fair towards the end of the show and some pub scenes definitely stand out – which provides some variety from the more placed sequences.
The Cumbrian accent is mostly absent from the production, sadly, but there are some winning performances which make up for it. Lauryn Redding captures Emily’s independent spirit brilliantly (which is carried forward by Lara Lewis as May), and Oliver Hembrough is convincing as the family man committed to his work. Samuel Martin takes Isaac (one of John’s brothers) on the most interesting journey – beginning as a bit of a Jack the Lad, leading John astray, to injury in the line of duty, and eventually settling down back home – and stands out with his engaging performance.
My verdict? A decent production of a slightly bland musical – the story’s 20-30 year span is overambitious for the given running time.
The Hired Man runs at Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch until 18 May 2019. Tickets are available online or from the box office. The production will then tour to Hull Truck Theatre and Oldham Coliseum Theatre.