Tuesday, 25 July 2017

Review The Hired Man

The Hired Man
Book By Melvyn Bragg
Music And Lyrics By Howard Goodall

Market Forces

Many folks in Britain researching their family tree will come across the abbreviation "ag lab" - that is, agricultural labourer, once one of the most common occupations in the country. 

So it is for Melvyn Bragg who based his 1969 novel, turned into a 1984 musical with the then young composer and lyricist Howard Goodall, on the life of his Cumbrian agricultural labourer grandfather.

The upheavals of the industrial revolution made the position of the agricultural labourer far more precarious than ever before. By the turn of the century, they were truly subjugated to the law of supply and demand. Landless male farm workers and female servants would swarm to hiring fairs and try to sell their services to farmers who found it a buyers' market.

Chronicling rural life and the struggles of John Tallentire (Ifan Gwilym-Jones), the farm worker turned coal miner, his wife Emily  (Rebecca Gililland) and their family against a backdrop of industrial and global upheaval,  The Hired Man is steeped in the British folksong and choral tradition.

Yet Goodall also cites German-born composer Kurt Weill, most famous for this collaboration with left-wing writer Bertolt Brecht, as an influence and we thought we detected the impact of  Blood Brothers and, in some of the themes, Fiddler On The Roof combined interestingly with the feel of radical William Blake's very English vision of Jerusalem.

One of the strengths of The Union Theatre has always been an opportunity for an audiences to see and hear unmiked performances.  However on a summer's evening, this plus point does become a minus as the soloists compete against the air conditioning  and an over loud orchestra (alhtough we're not sure if it is entirely the fault of the three-strong orchestra or the staging making poor use of the performing space's acoustics).

The ensemble choral ballads and the duets therefore fare best, such as the stirring Song Of The Hired Men and Day Follows Day. The most moving moments come in director Brendan Matthew's and choreographer Charlotte Tooth's searingly effective staging of the First World War scenes.    

Maybe we wished the effect of the landscape could have been evoked more in this production. However, the toughness and tragedy still comes through in a piece which wears its influences lightly. 

In the central role of John Tallentire, Gwilym-Jones makes the most of a thinly-drawn but tenacious role.

As his spouse Emily, Rebecca Gillenhall is sometimes a little stiff but possesses a beautiful, tender soprano.

Luke Kelly as the ne'er-do-well farmer's son, Sam Peggs as John's brother Isaac with the instinct of a speculator and Jonathan Carlton as the union organiser brother Seth also make an impact.
Inevitably some of the scenes turn to melodrama. However there is a spare, unsentimental quality to The Hired Man which prevents this seeming shoehorned in. Despite the acoustic problems,  this musical and production feels robust and resilient.

Some of the story, stretching over 20 years, may be a little too hastily covered in Braggs's book for the musical, but this is also a tale which keeps a hook in a truthful family past.

We sensed, for example, that the disease blighting one of the female characters could just as much have been industrial disease from exposure to coal dust brought home from the mines on the men folks' clothing as tuberculosis. 

Yet it also has a resonance now in the age of zero hours' contracts and the "gig" economy. It seems that recent news stories want us to buy into the illusion that we are all equally hired men and women. 

While the comparison may seem almost laughable, some of the vocabulary of the market place used nowadays by the highest paid employees, especially in the public sector, to justify their pay and the way they are employed becomes a distortion of the notion of hired men and women at a "fair" rate.

The Hired Man's thread of dignity and honesty in its treatment of past generations tied to the land and the coalface can encompass such meanings. All of which are reflected in an integrated range of musical styles and some outstanding moments here in performance. So it's an amber/green light.

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