The Hired Man continues at the Union Theatre, London until 12 August.
Star rating: three stars ★ ★ ★ ✩ ✩
Melvyn Bragg’s 1969 novel The Hired Man was the first of three novels to chart the lives of the Cumbrian Tallentire family.
Starting at the turn of the 20th century, the name derives from the head of the family, John Tallentire (Ifan Gwilym-Jones) who must endure the “hired market”, the hustle and bustle where men and women desperately tussle in order to secure one of the dwindling number of agricultural jobs that pay enough to feed and house them and their families.
Bragg’s novel, which he himself adapted into the musical’s book, follows John, his wife, brothers and children into the early 1920s, as farm work gave way to work in coal mines and the First World War placed further demands upon the country’s poor.
Howard Goodall’s luscious music draws upon English folk tradition to form a richly evocative soundscape, as the family’s fortunes change over the years.
It’s a musical form which works effectively with the small band size that works so well within the Union’s arches, musical director Richard Bates’ piano and accompanying violin and cello being the richest, most powerful part of this new revival.
Indeed, at times the music can be too overpowering: the cast of 15 is powerful when singing in ensemble, but duets and solos do struggle at times, and even moments of dialogue are occasionally swamped by Goodall’s rich underscoring. Perhaps it is just as well, though, for neither Goodall’s lyrics nor Bragg’s book have much to offer in the way of originality.
That does not prevent the cast from giving their all, though. Most impressive is Rebecca Gilliland as John’s wife, Emily – firstly in Act I as the young wife whose eye is turned by the local landowner’s son, Jackson (Luke Kelly), then in Act II as the strong-willed matriarch who insists on continuing to work even when John’s reluctant move to lucrative mining work means that the family does not need her income.
Similarly engaging are Kara Taylor Alberts and Jack McNeill as Act II’s teenage children May and Harry. McNeill in particular has to grow from a truculent 13 year old to an older teen who lies about his age in order to sign up for service in the war, and does so with utter conviction.
And the war scenes are where director Brendan Matthews and choreographer Charlotte Tooth’s vision combine most effectively. Achieving the horrors of the Western Front on the London Fringe is fraught with difficulty: its expression through some sensitively choreographed routines is all the more powerful for its understatedness.
Some of that understatement may have benefited elsewhere, especially in the ensemble dance numbers at the top of the show.
Tooth has the cast perform several stylised moves in unison in a manner which looks and feels anachronistic in a production which is otherwise successful in striving to convey a sense of time and place.
When such moves are railed back, for example in Act II’s ‘Union Song’, with opposing groups for and against unionisation marching and dancing in a style that matches their emotional outpourings, Tooth’s work pays off much better.
The fine ensemble is further hampered by a set dominated by a distressed wooden wall which, while feeling more in character than the Union’s clean brickwork, is constructed so far downstage that floorspace becomes an issue when the full cast is onstage.
But the biggest restriction of the piece is Bragg’s book.
In trying to tell so many stories and subplots from his original novel, individual characters rarely get the chance to form as an emotional connection to the audience as they should.
Ironically, the character which is damaged most by Bragg’s approach is John Tallentire, the original Hired Man himself: it feels as if he is a supporting character in a musical which cannot decide who is to take the lead in his place.