The Hired Man – Saturday 20th April, matinee.
When I started this blog I named it ‘Moments in the Woods’ partly because I love the Stephen Sondheim song of the same name but also because there are moments at the theatre where I get the indescribable feeling that I am watching something special. It may be a song, a particular performance or even just a tiny gesture within a scene but when that ‘moment’ comes, I know I will remember it forever. It doesn’t happen often but I mention this here because yesterdays performance of Melvyn Bragg and Howard Goodall’s 1984 musical ‘The Hired Man’, was full of these ‘moments’ and I don’t think I will be able to accurately put into words just how beautiful this musical is.
Bragg’s book tells the simple but compelling story of John and Emily Tallantire; their life trying to make a living in the Cumbrian fells at the beginning of the 20th Century and how they are affected by the social and political unrest of the time. Following the family from 1898-1921, the musical takes in the rise of the profitable yet dangerous mining industry, the establishment of the unions and of course, the devastating impact of the First World War.
I was intrigued to see this show as I am a Cumbrian myself and it is so rare to see our particular part of the world represented on stage or screen but I was concerned I would be too preoccupied by listening to the accents to invest in the story. I need not have worried about this however; as the cast do a generally good job even if they do veer a little too far over to the North East on occasion! Bragg’s book is understandably light on local slang but the sounds and pronunciations are accurate. He could of course have added a few more needless uses of the word ‘like’ or ended sentences with ‘eh’ for added authenticity!
I was soon too caught up in the emotion and passion of the music and performances to over analyse the accents however. Howard Goodall’s folk-inspired music is absolutely sublime, with hauntingly beautiful melodies and rousing choruses that stick in your head long after you leave. I will certainly be trying to find a recording and can imagine it becoming one of my most played theatre CDs. The songs are all performed with boundless energy by the entire cast, many of whom also play the instruments onstage, creating a strong sound far greater than their number would suggest and a sense of intimacy that suits the production.
David Hunter is a charismatic leading man, bringing honesty and likeability to the character of John Tallantire and his passionate performance of ‘What a Fool I’ve Been’ was one of the stand out moments of the show for me. There is strong support also from Kit Orton as Jackson and Mark Stobbart as Isaac but the show was stolen by Julie Atherton as Emily Tallantire, who gave one of the best musical theatre performances I’ve seen for a long time, if not one of the best ever.
I’ve long been a fan of Julie Atherton’s work, from her solo albums, her performances in shows such as Avenue Q and Sister Act through to her brilliant support of new musical theatre writing. I’ve always considered her one of our finest comedy actresses but here she proves that she is one of our finest actresses full stop, giving a performance of such emotional intensity that she reduced me to tears multiple times throughout the show. Completely believable throughout, you could feel everything Emily felt as she struggled to deal with the flirtatious attention of Jackson, her regret during ‘If I Could’ at the end of Act One and her commitment to protecting her family throughout Act Two.
‘The Hired Man’ is a co-production between the Mercury Theatre, Colchester and the Curve and I can only hope that it has a life beyond the run in Leicester. It is far superior to a lot of what is currently running in the West End and I’m sure an extended tour would do well; The Theatre by the Lake in Keswick immediately springs to mind as an ideal venue.
This show touched my heart in a way that very few do and I thank everyone involved in its creation and in bringing it to new audiences. ‘The Hired Man’ is very special indeed and I urge everyone to see it if they can.
It runs until 27th April at Leicester Curve, book tickets here