The Hired Man, Melvyn Bragg and Howard Goodall’s 1985 musical about – unsurprisingly – a hired hand and his family in early twentieth century Cumbria has been much performed since it’s initial West End run, especially by amateur companies. Much of the press surrounding this production calls it one of the best British musicals of the last half a century. This may be an exaggeration.
Douglas Rintoul’s restaging brings out the show’s folktale elements. New orchestrations from The Really Useful Company Ltd. bring fiddles and double basses to Goodall’s initial choral and orchestral score. The ensemble form the band as well as playing the array of soldiers and townsfolk which Bragg’s nebulous book demands of them. This touch provides a vitality the production would have otherwise lacked. Music, rather than being simply a storytelling method, becomes an integral part of the theatrical world. A cello doubles as a whippet, a guitar becomes a plough. This is probably the most significant of many brilliant choices from Rintoul. Enriched by Jean Chan’s design, the staging hurls this 1985 musical into the twenty-first century, with all the dynamics and aesthetic consistency of modern theatre. It is unfortunate that the material fails to match their efforts.
The Hired Man is a steaming hot pot of plot elements. By turns it is about the fall of the English agricultural tradition, the birth of unionism in Cumbrian mining communities, infidelity, World War I, grief and the exploitation of the working classes. Even with the show’s two hour run time, that is a long list of concerns to cover. Bragg’s book is confused. Having not read the show’s source text, I cannot attest as to whether this is due to over-fidelity to his initial novel, but this would not surprise me. So much of the play’s action is told rather than shown and very few of the points of proposed narrative conflict are earned. Dramatic potential is wasted on scenes and songs where the characters recount to us exactly what resolution they have come to, without having undertaken even a semblance of a narrative journey.
It seems to me that Bragg has over-relied on his writing partner to take on the narrative burden. This is a common failing among book writers of musicals and, in many cases, goes completely unnoticed. Unfortunately, Goodall fails to pick up the slack left to him. There are some hints of genuine greatness in the score – the rushing energy of the opening number is breath-taking and the World War I number is incredibly emotive – but the songs are more expositional than narrative. Attempting to cover 40 years of history has required numbers acting as context catch-ups. Most of these are incredibly tuneful but stall the pacing terribly and leave little room for the family relationships which feel as though they should be the heart of the piece.
The cast do an awful lot to breathe life into these characters. Oliver Hembrough who plays John, the proverbial hired man, is particularly stunning as is Lauryn Redding as his wife, Emily. The show demands that they both convincingly motivate scenes with very little emotional build up. This is done so expertly that the absence of key points of narrative action is almost unnoticeable. The same can be said for the ensemble who produce lively performances that make for a delightful watch. Even with the occasional accent slip, they beautifully establish the world of the show from the moment they advance upon us.
Rintoul’s The Hired Man is by no means a bad production. A valiant effort has been made to produce a version of the musical worth watching and it is certainly an enjoyable watch. There are two, maybe even three, good musicals somewhere in the show. In trying to fit them all in, however, major dramatic opportunities are missed and that remains difficult to ignore.
The Hired Man is playing the Hull Truck Theatre until 15 June. For more information and tickets see the Hull Truck Theatre website.