Periodically revived since its 1984 premiere, Melvyn Bragg’s bittersweet, bucolic drama about the tenacity of the working poor is a stirring but thoroughly sentimental show.
Here, a tight arrangement of Howard Goodall’s score riffs triumphantly on Vaughn Williams and Aaron Copland – all folksy fiddles and muted trumpets, soaring arpeggios and sweet, warbling high notes. It’s handled competently by an 11-strong actor-musician ensemble, who lug their instruments through a series of pleasingly hectic crowd scenes.
Director Douglas Rintoul gives it a brisk energy, which pushes through the first act’s overfamiliar love triangle plot, but feels jarringly abrupt in a second half in which the characters’ lives are repeatedly interrupted by history. Unions form, the First World War breaks out, and mines collapse – but it all happens too fast to really resonate.
Still, the leads do some good work with the well-drawn characters. Lauryn Redding is emotive as conflicted wife Emily, full of resentment and romantic notions that ultimately settle into habitual familiarity with her labourer husband John, played by a soft-spoken Oliver Hembrough. He lends this titular Hired Man a deep sensitivity, stoically working himself to death, but breaking into delicate song as he grapples with unspoken feelings. Meanwhile, Lara Lewis is a boisterous presence as their daughter May, her outspoken attitudes signalling a new era beginning to dawn.
Jean Chan’s bare, revolving stage rotates in front of a prettily painted backdrop of fells and fens, where washes of purple, grey, and russet light suggest the shifting colours of a Cumbrian sky.