THE HIRED MAN
book by Melvyn Bragg music and lyrics by Howard Goodall.
Octagon Theatre To 3 July 2010.
Runs 2hr 40min One interval.
Review: Timothy Ramsden 3 July.
Oh, to see A Hired Man.
“Oh, to be a hired man,” sings the Chorus in the number framing this musical adaptation of Melvyn Bragg’s West Cumbrian novel. Men take-up employment seasonally at farm-labourer hiring fairs, bargaining for low wages in return for hard work and good behaviour. The choice is stark, with better-pay in the dark mines under earth and sea then, as the first-half’s late 19th-century setting gives way a generation on to 1914, the danger of trench-warfare.
Within this setting Bragg tells a story of contrasting political attitudes – attempts to form a union and efforts to break the union’s action – and the divisions brought by love in a strict society, as an unsatisfied wife can’t help turning to a friend’s greater affection.
An old story at heart, then, but given new interest in its specific social and geographical setting, and through Howard Goodall’s springily energetic score. Its melodic bounce expresses a sense of independence and pride in skill at the physically demanding job of ploughman, and in the remnants of independence expressed through bargaining over wages and fringe benefits.
Skilfully interweaving the characters with a community company, David Thacker’s production must give the Octagon authorities another reason for satisfaction they’ve hired him – on, presumably, less autocratic terms and, it’s to be hoped, for considerably more than one season. Individual performance are good enough, but it’s the communal sense where the production’s strength mainly lies. That, and giving room to Goodall’s score, where short, leaping phrases alternate with energised scale-like runs propelling song and character forward.
Designer Dawn Alsopp judiciously avoids scenic setting, opting for a wood-panelled surround which aids the flexible action’s movement, allowing Richard G Jones’ lighting to highlight solo existences, create secrecy by spotlighting small areas while keeping a consciousness of potential overlookers in the semi-darkness around, or open into bright, full-width vistas of light – later exchanged for the narrow, dangerous worlds of pit-shaft or Flanders trench.
Moving energetically, always focused as it uses the stage’s various levels and locations to express friendships, divisions and necessary comradeship amid adversity, Thacker’s account is a night to remember – and quite possibly revive.
Farmer/Seth Tallentire/Dan: Tobias Beer.
Farmer/Jackson Pennington/Chairman/Villager: John Cusworth.
Worker/Sally/Lil/Miner’s Wife: Clara Darcy.
John Tallentire: Kieran Hill.
Worker/May Tallentire: Barbara Hockaday.
Farmer/Tom/Harry Tallentire/Villager: Chris Milford.
Emily Tallentire: Amy Nuttall.
Isaac Tallentire: David Ricardo-Pearce.
Pennington/Josh/Blacklock/Soldier/Vicar/Alec: Johnson Willis.
Community company: Adam Atkinson, Anne Bain, Madeleine Brierley, Joe Connor, Steven Derbyshire, Graham Griffiths, Declan Grimes, Barry Hall, Sam Lupton, Emma Matthews, Eleanor Molloy, Valerie Nicholson, George D Sharpe, Lucy Telleck, Dominic Vulliamy, Jane Worsley
Director: David Thacker.
Designer: Dawn Allsopp.
Lighting: Richard G Jones.
Sound: Andy Smith.
Musical Director: Carol Sloman.
Movement: Lesley Hutchison.
Fight director: Terry King.
Assistant director: Elizabeth Newman.