The Hired Man has been lauded as the best British musical in 40 years. Based on the novel by Melvyn Bragg, it tells the stories of the ordinary, working-class, rural community in Cumbria, during the turn of the 20th Century.
The idyllic country life, with whippet racing, hunting, and country fairs, is set in stark contrast to the brutal hardships faced by farmers, determined to carve a living by tending “barren soil” for low wages. Performed by a talented group of actor-musicians, The Hired Man, shows the strain this lifestyle imposes on newly married couple, John and Emily. This epic story of love, betrayal and loyalty is soon disrupted by the outbreak of the First World War.
Howard Goodall‘s outstanding musical score provides spectacular, memorable songs, many featuring the entire ensemble. The powerful vocals of the ensemble ensure that Goodall’s beautiful, poetic lyrics remain discernible over the sensational instrumental score.
These breathtaking group pieces are the highlights of the show, depicting everything from country markets to union meetings, and brilliantly utilise the revolving, raked stage. Although the stage is sparsely furnished, the inspired use of props, combined with subtle lighting and backdrops, helps bring the Cumbrian community to life. When the actors don’t play their instruments, they are incorporated into the performance; a cello dragged along the floor becomes a dog being taken for a walk.
Rousing ensemble songs are mixed with beautiful solo and duet songs between John and Emily, a newly married couple struggling with the isolation of rural farming and starting a family. Lauryn Redding delivers a spine-tingling, tender, solo as she is caught between loyalty towards her husband, who is working all day, and her love for local farmer, Jackson. Utter heart-break and despair is evident in Redding’s voice, as it cracks with emotion. An incredible actress and singer, she delivers the standout performance of the evening.
Likewise, Oliver Hembrough is magnificent as John. As their marriage is subjected to several trials, Hembrough delivers several resounding songs, wonderfully rendering his character’s inner turmoil. Most impressive is when he faces the dilemma of letting his son work down the mines. “What would you say to your son if you were me?”. A beautiful song that is mirrored later in the play by Emily, as war looms.
The Hired Man is a musical that delivers a powerful blow in its second act, when the First World War starts. The characters that we have grown attached to in the first half are plunged into war. No words are provided for this transition. The ensemble simply appear in army uniform, and your heart sinks with the ominous feeling that this won’t end well. “I’ll be back before the winter’s out”.
I was turned into an emotional wreck, as beloved characters become casualties, and the horrific conditions of the trenches are relayed through the incredibly powerful ensemble piece, “Out in No Man’s Land, who will come for us there?”. Goodall’s score emotionally juxtaposes these scenes from the front with the women at home reliant on news, letters, and reading the casualty list. It poignantly shows the devastating impact that war has on soldiers, and those back home. The strong women, who have to put on a brave face, dreading the day a letter comes through the post. “I hope there will never be another time like this”.
This musical also movingly relays the catastrophic toll the war caused on small communities, with generations of men lost in France. “17 men gone, from a little place like this”. It gives a poignant reminder of just how many people died in the First World War. Although the small, Cumbrian village tries to move on, “Ghosts of our lost sons return home from Passchendaele”. It is difficult to return to being a hired man, working the land, after all the trauma of war.
This is by far the best musical I have ever seen. I have never been so profoundly moved by anything in the theatre before. I openly wept, as characters I had grown attached to were thrust into war. It is a sublime musical, with a beautiful score that is moving, powerful, and tender. Performed by phenomenal actor-musicians, I urge everyone who is in Manchester to see this. It is stunning!
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
The Hired Man runs at Oldham Coliseum until 6th July. You can purchase tickets through their website.