1984. Not the scary Orwellian one but the real one, which was probably even more scary in retrospect. Five years into the late Baroness Thatcher’s regime that changed the nation forever. Two years after the Falklands Conflict; the time of the Miners’ Strike; protests at Greenham Common; ah, happy days. And a little musical opened at the Astoria Theatre (now G-A-Y) with a book by Melvyn Bragg and music by Howard Goodall. I went to see it on 2nd February 1985 according to my ticket stub, and was totally blown away by its intensity, emotion, terrific score and amazing cast. That original production was born at the old Leicester Haymarket theatre, and in a sense, thirty years later, it’s come home.
In the intervening years it hasn’t lost any of its relevance. The subjugation of the hired man to the demands, whims and mercy of his employer (“the day of rest is Man’s invention”, according to the lyrics), means it can be tough to get right that work/life balance, to the detriment of relationships. Workers’ rights, union clashes, young men going off to war and not coming back, plus the trials and tribulations of young love – all human life is here in the not so idyllic Lake District of a hundred years ago.
Normally I try not to give away too much of the plot of plays and shows but in this case I have found it virtually impossible. So if you’re going to see it and you don’t know the story yet, please bookmark this page and come back after the show! Otherwise, carry on…
“The Hired Man” really is the complete package. It has a very convincing and gripping story line, fantastic memorable songs and it’s laden with emotion without ever being mawkish or sensational. I confessed to Mrs Chrisparkle that when I saw it in the 1980s it made me cry. In the interval she smirked, “Have we come to the bit that made you cry yet?” “No”, I replied, summoning up all the masculinity I could muster. Then came the second act. By curtain call she was in floods of tears. Not only her, but I would guess a good half of the audience had reached for the Kleenex. The lady to my left had been solidly weeping for the last half hour. The light caught the bald head of an older man in the second row as he kept on bobbing up and down to the rhythm of his sobs. Few escape this show’s emotional tentacles. That’ll teach Mrs C for being so cocky.
This production comes to the Curve as a co-production with the Mercury Theatre Colchester, and is staged in their Studio theatre. This was our first visit to the Studio, and I must say I was well impressed. Comfortable, plenty of legroom, pretty good sightlines and an intimate, experimental vibe, even though it is considerably larger than other “Studio” type theatres I’ve visited. Its layout put me in the mind of the old Mermaid Theatre as it used to be in the “good old days” – a fairly wide stage with just a bank of seats gently escalating up to heaven. The whole Curve complex is quickly becoming one of my favourite venues – the place was packed with people going round craft stalls, watching a gospel choir, meeting for coffee and lunch (delicious food, including gluten-free options in the café), plus it has friendly staff and their ticket prices are delightfully sensible. And I love how you can peek through the offstage area of the main theatre and see all the props and costumes in waiting, as the ASMs go about their business.
Back to the Hired Man. It’s one of those productions where the cast play the instruments, apart from Richard Reeday, the Musical Director, on the piano. That really helps to combine the music into the actors’ performance, which in turn assists and enforces the plot development of a musical. Howard Goodall’s lyrics are both tender and hard hitting and fit his tunes perfectly. The arrangements reflect the rural settings; the use of trumpets gives a sense of country bands, and there’s even a harp to enhance the more romantic aspects. The music is performed beautifully throughout. My favourite song from the show, “What a Fool I’ve been”, which has been for many years a regular in my shower repertoire, has an inventive piano backing of anxious staccato notes that panic up and down the keyboard, reflecting John’s inner turmoil. Terrific stuff. Juliet Shillingford’s deceptively simple set nicely suggests the open countryside, but converts easily to the dinginess of John and Emily’s small cottage, the exposed terror of the French battlefields, and the claustrophobia of the coalface.
There are some superb performances that add to the tugging of the heartstrings. One of my main recollections of the 1980s production was the extraordinary Olivier award winning performance of Paul Clarkson as John, whose steely gaze burnt through the audience’s combined retina as you witnessed his sorrows, his furies, his delights and his ability to take every blow that life dishes out. So I was curious, if not concerned, to find out how David Hunter would take to the role in this production. I’m pleased to say he’s very different and gives you an excellent insight into other aspects that make up the character of John.
David Hunter is a much quieter, calmer John; where Paul Clarkson exploded with resentment and angst, Mr Hunter chooses more to internalise his passions but his expressions and superb singing voice convey the full range of emotions that John experiences. He has an open innocence in the early days of his love with Emily (the wonderful “Say Farewell” was performed with youthful exuberance); and when he performed “What a Fool I’ve been” it really gave me goosebumps up and down my arms. John’s slow realisation that Emily and Jackson have been seeing each other behind his back and which leads into that song was done perfectly. That scene also culminates in the most exciting, technically precise and dramatic stage fight I’ve ever seen. The lady to my left, who was to blub uncontrollably later on, hid her eyes behind her hands as she couldn’t bear to see another punch land – brilliant work by Mr Hunter and Kit Orton as Jackson. In the second half, he ages very convincingly into someone now coping with the different challenges of mining and war, and managing his family. Like the whole cast, Mr Hunter is particularly good at connecting eye to eye with audience members – when he was dealing with his emotional question “What would you say to your son, if you were me” he looked straight at me and I believed absolutely that he was genuinely seeking my advice. At the end of the show, when he finally goes back to the land, he brings a triumphant resilience to the last reprise of the main theme. It’s a really mature performance and offers for big roles ought to be dropping on his doormat on a daily basis.
Equally, if not more, astonishing a performance comes from Julie Atherton as Emily. We’ve seen Miss Atherton a couple of times before and she always gives a great performance – she was excellent as Sister Mary Robert in Sister Act. Her voice is as clear as a bell and as powerful as a rocket and she couldn’t keep her emotions to herself if she tried. She effortlessly provides fantastic harmonies with Mr Hunter, most memorably in “Say Farewell”, and her growing relationship with Jackson is superbly subtle; you can see her desperately trying to put the brakes on too late, and the scene where she skids uncontrollably into his arms was really moving. She has a lightness of touch with the domestic scenes that bring out the, albeit sparse, humour in the role. But it is in the second half that she really comes into her own. When she can’t keep her son from going down the pit or from going to war – you knew the moment that the excellent Jamie Barnard turned up with a packed suitcase there was only ever going to be one sad outcome; when she gets the letter from John with the terrible news; when she starts to weaken through ill health; and when her spirit returns to the land with John in the final scene, she is just tremendous. I reckon she had tears on her cheeks for about 40 minutes in that second half. No grown man could help but tearfully sniff along with her. You can’t stop watching her – a sensational performance.
The whole cast is excellent, but I would commend to you some particularly impressive performances. Mark Stobbart as Isaac, John’s chancer of a brother, irrepressibly looks for easy ways to make a bit of cash but has a heart of gold, and when he comes back from war and his wrestling days are over I felt really sad for the character. Gary Tushaw as John’s more responsible brother Seth, gives a sterling performance of reliability and has great stage presence. Kit Orton’s Jackson is a charismatic chap who you would have no doubt would easily win over any fair lady – and he has a brilliant voice. And Jill Cardo’s May, John and Emily’s nearly grown-up daughter, gives a great performance of a girl on the verge of being a young woman, teasing and daring with her clothes, with an impish sense of humour and a big heart that could break at any minute.
What can I say? It’s an intense, almost draining experience – we slept for hours afterwards due to emotional exhaustion. The music is sensational – Mrs C hasn’t stopped singing “Oh to be a hired man” for the last four days. The performances are skilful and engrossing, and the whole production is magic. Simply brilliant, and you’ll kick yourself if you miss it.