Review – The Hired Man, Studio at the Curve, Leicester, 21st April 2013

The Hired Man 19841984. 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.

The Hired Man 2013In 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…

David Hunter“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.

Julie AthertonThis 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.

Jamie BarnardBack 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.

Mark StobbartThere 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.

Gary TushawDavid 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.

Kit OrtonEqually, 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.

Jill CardoThe 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.

Review – Sister Act, Milton Keynes Theatre, 21st June 2012

Sister ActRegular readers won’t be surprised to hear that Mrs Chrisparkle and I have never seen the original film of Sister Act but I always fancied seeing this show and wanted to catch it when it was at the Palladium, with Sheila Hancock as the Mother Superior. Alas it was not to be, but I jumped at the chance to see the current UK tour.

The story is pretty simple – showgirl Deloris sees gangster boyfriend murder a squealer so has to flee for safety. The softy police guy arranges for her to stay in the local convent, much to the disappointment of the rather staid Mother Superior but to the excitement of the nuns who learn amazing song and dance routines off her. As such their religious services gain massive popularity and thus Deloris’ cover is blown. The villains get close but it all ends with the suggestion of “happy ever after”.

With no pretensions to having a hidden message other than “evil is bad, good is great and isn’t it wonderful when we all get along”, this show is filled with feelgood fun-packed scenes and Mrs C and I sat through it beaming with pleasure. It looks smashing – lavish costumes, beautiful set, nicely lit; although some mischievous electricity gremlin turned up the house lights during a few scenes which felt odd. It’s got a nice big talented cast to use up the stage, and a superb twelve person orchestra which whacks out the jolly score superbly.

There were one or two slight issues that kept it in the realm of the 4* and not the 5* for me. For instance a couple of the numbers in the second half were over-amplified so that the lyrics were hard to follow; a shame, because the lyrics that we could decipher are really good. The nuns’ welcoming song “It’s Good to be a Nun” is very funny and the evil Curtis’ “When I Find My Baby” is nastily witty. Mind you, we both thought “Bless Our Show” strayed into the saccharine. That was the other slight problem; when the show gets a bit sentimental it loses some of its drive and punch, but that’s probably hard to avoid with the storyline as it is.

Cynthia Erivo What you certainly can say is that there are some terrific performances. As Deloris, Cynthia Erivo has a great presence, looks gorgeous and has a superb voice. She performs with gusto and pizzazz throughout, whilst still retaining the occasionally vulnerable aspect of her character. She creates an immensely warm and likeable atmosphere on stage, and having only graduated from RADA in 2010, I’m sure she will have a very successful career.

Julie AthertonJulie Atherton’s Sister Mary Robert, the rather timid postulant who gains confidence from her friendship with Deloris, has a belter of a beautiful clear voice which you could never predict from her diminutive appearance. Her character’s journey is very warmly told and Ms Atherton gives a super performance. Jacqueline Clarke, as Sister Jacqueline ClarkeMary Lazarus, has lost none of the cheeky charm she had as one of Dave Allen’s sketch partners back in the 1970s, and can use her relatively older age to great shock effect; like when she’s jazzing up some dance routines and dishing out some less than holy jokes in her no-nonsense manner. She was very funny and a huge hit with the audience.

Edward BaruwaEdward Baruwa plays Eddie Souther, the cop who rescues Deloris and hides her in the convent, and it’s probably the most realistic characterisation in the whole show. He’s a bit wet really, but struggles manfully with his wimpiness to great comic and emotional effect. His growing confidence with Deloris is a delight to watch and he has a brilliant routine – “I Could Be That Guy” – where he dreams of “coming on strong”, with his wonderful pastiche of slightly hamfisted 1970s soul performer. And with some very cleverly done changes of outfit – I saw how they did the first one but the second one was a big surprise! I really enjoyed his performance, and of course it’s very rewarding when his character saves the day at the end.

Cavin CornwallStraight out of pantomime, and absolutely excellent with it, is the evil Curtis played by Cavin Cornwall. Mr Cornwall has a magnificent voice and is convincingly nasty in his ruthlessness. He has scary authority on stage which provides a very funny juxtaposition with his ludicrous henchmen when they turn into backing singers and dancers – more entertaining performances from Michael StarkeGavin Alex, Tyrone Huntley and Daniel Stockton. Michael Starke’s Monsignor O’Hara is another very good performance, as he develops from being a rather starchy clergyman to a glitzy showbiz compère. I think his secret is that he gets just the right level of campness to the character so that it’s all the more believable.

Denise BlackIndeed the whole cast are excellent; I just have a slight quibble about Denise Black’s performance as the Mother Superior. She has a superb voice, and I loved her singing – she absolutely looks the part and gives a good combination of innate dignity and very human irritation when having to deal with Deloris. But I felt that she didn’t quite tweak all the humour or pathos out of the role. I’m sure she could have emphasised her withering looks or simply spoken the words in a more creative, slightly less pedestrian way.

Musically, the songs are bright and have good tunes but are strangely unmemorable. We enjoyed hearing them very much but when we left the theatre found we couldn’t bring any of them to mind – in fact we reached the car singing “You Can’t Stop The Beat” from Hairspray, very much in the same style as the Sister Act songs; but it’s not a good sign when you’re reminded of other shows. Mrs C in particular thought the only thing Sister Act lacked was a couple of strong numbers with really good hooks. On reflection, the lyrics are definitely more memorable than the tunes.

However, it really is an enormously entertaining show and a feast for the eyes, with some cracking performances, a very funny book and a great feel good factor. It received a very big reception from the audience and I’m sure this tour, which goes on till October, will continue to be very successful. I’d definitely recommend it.