The Hired Man review at Union Theatre, London – ‘heartfelt but patchy’
Based on the novel by Melvyn Bragg, Howard Goodall’s first musical The Hired Man is a depiction of working-class northern life in a period of transition from the fields to the pit at the end of the 19th century.
It follows the tribulations of everyman John Tallentire and his wife Emily and the many disasters that befall them. The unrelenting DH Lawrence-esque gloominess becomes wearying after a while.
Brendan Matthew’s production is heartfelt and well served by Justin Williams’ unfussy design, but technically it’s a patchy affair and it’s a struggle to hear the cast clearly even in the relatively small space of the Union Theatre.
Goodall’s musical is stronger in the second act with its depiction of the growth of the Labour movement and a First World War sequence that movingly marries war and domesticity. Charlotte Tooth’s choreography is the highlight of the production; evoking a boisterous sense of community in the pub and the marketplace, it’s vigorously executed by the company.
The Hired Man feels like it ought to be a character-led piece, but it relies far too heavily on archetypes. Some of the performances transcend this. First seen as a wide-eyed young couple confident that love is enough, Ifan Gwilym-Jones is physically convincing as the rugged, hardworking John and Rebecca Gilliland provides a fine, understated performance as the long-suffering Emily torn between duty and her own desires. But the issues with audibility hamper an overly earnest production.