THE HIRED MAN. 3***, London

Music & Lyrics by Howard Goodall
Book by Melvyn Bragg
3 ***

The Union Theatre, Old Union Arches, 229 Union Street, London SE1 0LR to 12 August 2017.
Tues-Sat 7.30pm Mat Sat & Sun 2.30pm.
Runs 2hr 15 mins One interval.
TICKETS: 020 7261 9876.
Review: William Russell 21 July.

Hard times in Cumbria,
The Hired Man, a 1984 musical by Howard Goodall based on the first volume of Melvyn Bragg’s Cumbrian Trilogy published in 1969 is a hymn to country folk which as the plot unfolds seems at times like one damn thing after another. Bragg the novelist – his fame rests on other achievements – was doing for Cumbria what Hardy did for Wessex. In his first musical Goodall created a very English score which suffers only from the lack of that essential memorable song. It was a critical success, won awards, but audiences did not warm to it. That said it gets regularly revived and has its fans.

It is about John Tallentire, a Cumbrian farm hand for hire, who goes down the pit at Whitehaven and his wife Emily who briefly falls, to her regret, for another man, a local wide boy called Jackson Pennington. John is an honest and straightforward husband and the marriage survives. Add trade unionism in the pits, strikes, a mining disaster, the First World war and a second generation carrying on regardless in Act Two – this is going to be a trilogy after all – when the focus shifts away from the interesting characters and some of them die.

Director Brendan Matthew has come up with a briskly staged production which has its moments, but at times one wishes the ensemble would stop prancing about doing dancing acting and just sing. He should have sat on his choreographer’s patent belief that you need endless movement and not let the cast play it barefoot – times were tough but not that tough. People should look at what opera choruses mostly do – stand there, walk a little and sing.

The performances by the leads are good, although they all the cast have problems with the Union’s verity tricky acoustic. There are some places where the voices get swallowed up if directed wrongly. Throat mikes would simply exaggerate the problem. Things are not helped by the fact the orchestra, which is confined to a space beneath the flight of stairs which run up one side of the acting space and acts as a sort of echo chamber creating sound which engulfs the voices. And while everyone warbles away well enough it is in that shouty fashion drama schools seem to teach instead of plain old fashioned singing – and plain old fashioned singing is what Goodall needs.

Rebecca Gilliland, as Emily, the wife who strayed and regretted it, delivers the best performance of the night as actor and singer, although to be fair Ifan Gwilym-Jones makes a nicely stubborn and loving John, and Luke Kelly, who towers above everyone else, is a fetching lusty seducer. But the rest of the cast act away like mad when a little just being would be the better option. Also all those Tallentires do get a mite confusing.

The ensemble dance with verve but one never gets any feeling of this
being turn of the century rural England and the rather gloomy set, a construction of dark wood, some bits of china, a mine shaft wheel and a couple of chairs, is neither here nor there. Things would work better with nothing at all just lighting. Goodall’s score, however, is given full justice by a good trio led by Richard Bates incarcerated in that under the stairs cupboard, and Goodall fans will not be disappointed.

John Tallentire: Ifan Gwilym-Jones.
Emily Tallentire: Rebecca Gilliland.
May Tallentire: Kara Taylor Alberts.
Harry Tallentire: Jack McNeill.
Isaac Tallentire: Sam Peggs.
Seth Tallentire: Jonathan Carlton.
Jackson Pennington: Luke Kelly.
Sally Edmondson: Megan Armstrong.
Pennington: Christopher Lyne.
Tom/Ensemble: Matthew Chase.
Dance Captain: Rebecca Withers.
Ted Blacklock/Ensemble: Aaron Davey.
Vocal Captain: Laurel Dougall.
The Vicar/Ensemble: Nick Brittain.
Ensemble: Lori Mclare.

Director: Brendan Matthew.
Choreographer: Charlotte Tooth.
Musical Director: Richard Bates.
Set Designer: Justin Williams.
Costume Designer: Carrie-Ann Stein.
Fight & Dialect Consultant: Conor Neaves.

2017-07-24 09:13:32

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