Howard Goodall, Melvyn Bragg
Queen's Theatre, Hornchurch, Hull Truck Theatre Co and Oldham Coliseum production
20 June 2019 - 6 July 2019: 2hr 30min with interval
Howard Goodall was a hot young composer in his twenties back in the 1980s, with TV theme tunes and other credits to his name. It was a popularity that presumably gave him the confidence to approach Melvyn Bragg and ask him to collaborate on turning Bragg's book about his grandfather's life in early-century Cumberland (the Lake District) into a stage musical.
Bragg agreed, and The Hired Man became... Goodall's pretty reasonable but flawed first attempt at a musical, one that has been sporadically revived over the past 30 years but has never really made much of an impact.
Though Goodall's music is tuneful and very "Eighties", it is also quite difficult to sing, I suspect, and fits the slightly dour story oddly; this is a rural tale told with music quite some way removed from the rustic, folksy tunes one might expect.
But the only real problem of The Hired Man is its subject matter. The show, as is fairly usual, talks about the lives of all working class people by focusing, in this case, on a small Cumberland community. While it is pretty good on the sweat and toil of working the land, surviving down the pit when safety wasn't a major matter, and surviving likewise in the trenches, it's not so good at bringing the scale down to family life. Husband John, wife Emily and, later, children May and Harry, plus an assortment of friends and relatives, are fairly roughly sketched.
The first act rushes through John's (Oliver Hembrough) getting a new job, moving himself and his wife (the excellent Lauryn Redding) into a new hovel and working his heart out for 80p a week. It also features Emily's infidelity with the farmer's layabout son, Jackson (Lloyd Gorman) - though the episode is scarcely covered in any degree of detail that might make us think it mattered much to anyone involved.
This seems obviously the case when in the second act, a time-shift takes us 16 years forward and John and Emily are still together, seemingly happy, and have two children. It makes you wonder what point was being made.
Act two is far better than act one, pushing the story forward with the rise of unionism and the drive to sign up for the Army, with the tragedies this brings.
Having said that, this company - directed by Queen's Hornchurch artistic director Douglas Rintoul - is well selected, a strong mix of actors and singers doubling as musicians under the direction of MD Ben Goddard. They build a fine community-minded rapport even though it seems at times that the musical is off somewhere in a different direction.
The set (Jean Chan) is simple and generally effective; a wide landscape backdrop stands behind a raked revolve on which a table, a chair and the odd bit of bunting are the only props (fine for the action scenes, but not quite homely enough for the family story).
The evening is well presented, well sung and acted, though rather serious. Even so, it's good to see a fair-sized cast and strong singing once again on the Coliseum stage.