"Memorable ensemble pieces raise morale"
by Tim Mottershead for remotegoat on 21/06/19

Melvyn Bragg is perhaps still best-known for his long stint as the presenter of the TV arts programme ‘The South Bank Show’, but has a long and distinguished career as a writer. ‘The Hired Man’ like many of his novels, is set in his beloved Lake District. Howard Goodall is probably known to most for his musical collaborations with Richard Curtis on programmes such as ‘The Vicar of Dibley’ and as a radio presenter. Nevertheless, he is a prolific composer and has delivered pertinent musical analyses of works such as the Beatles’ ‘Sergeant Pepper’. This musical remains their only collaboration, and
is set in the Lake District, in the late Victorian era, centring on the hiring fairs where workers sold their labour for a weekly wage, on a take it or leave it basis. Premiered in 1984, surely the co-creators would have imagined that they were describing something firmly in the past, and would never have dreamt of a contemporary resonance with today’s ‘gig economy’?

The principle characters are John (Oliver Hembrough) whose obsession with his farm work makes him a reliable rather than exciting husband to Emily (Lauryn Redding) his somewhat feisty wife. In addition to his 16 shillings a week, a tumble-down cottage comes with the job, where the pair bring up their two children May (Lara Lewis) and Harry (James William-Pattison). If the couple’s mismatch is somewhat reminiscent of Thomas Hardy, it is not long before a more dashing figure appears on the scene: Jackson (Lloyd Gorman) who is first introduced to the audience in a wrestling match with John’s brother Isaac (Samuel Martin) (Bethan Clark being the fight director). Besides any possible intrigues between Emily and Jackson, the plot also focuses on the relative attraction the regular higher wages of mining can offer over the insecurity of farm work, and also tentative union mobilisation. In act two, the children May and Harry are now young adults already embarking on their first experiences of work, as storm clouds of World War I gather.

The music made its most rousing contributions in the memorable ensemble pieces, whether depicting the village in celebratory mood, or in choreographed gestures to depict the unrelenting toil of working the land (Jane Gibson is the movement director). The idea of using on-stage actor-musicians worked well. From memory, they played a varied collection of instruments including trumpet, clarinet, flute, guitar, accordion, violin, viola, double bass; which they often carry around with them, including a cello which amusingly doubled in the part of a whippet! The ensemble was directed from the keyboard by Tom Self, who also appeared centre stage as the union chairman (with overall musical direction from Ben Goddard).

The cast was completed Jon Bonner as the hiring man Pennington, TJ Holmes as Seth, with Sufia Manya, and Lucy Keirl as Sally, with direction by Douglas Rintoul. Set designs by Jean Chan, lit by Prema Mehta, were suggestive of a variety of Lakeland backdops, and more.

This version of ‘The Hired Man’ is a co-production with Queen's Theatre Hornchurch and Hull Truck Theatre, and continues until 6 July.

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