Friday, 21 June 2019

THEATRE REVIEW: The Hired Man - The Coliseum Theatre, Oldham.

In spite of his many musical accomplishments, (this superb musical being one), and a passion for popularising classical musical, Howard Goodall is still best known as being the composer of TV theme tunes for amongst others, Mr Bean, Blackadder, Red Dwarf and the iconic setting of the 23rd Psalm for The Vicar of Dibley. In almost a forty year career, Goodall has amassed an impressive C.V. in musical theatre, working with different collaborators to create arguably some of the most interesting and invigorating musicals seen in the British Theatre, including in recent years critically acclaimed West End productions of Love Story and Bend It Like Beckham. A little known fact about Goodall is that his musical, Girlfriends, set during the Second World War, premiered at the Oldham Coliseum Theatre in 1986 before transferring a year later to the Playhouse Theatre in London.

Goodall’s first foray into musical theatre in his early 20s was with the distinguished author and broadcaster Melvyn Bragg. It is easy to see why Goodall was attracted to adapting Bragg’s book into a musical. Written by Bragg as the first part of his Cumbrian Trilogy, the novel set in the Lake District towards the end of the nineteenth century provided Goodall with plenty of opportunities to compose music in the choral and English Folk traditions, genres that he has continues to love and champion both as a successful broadcaster and composer. In an era that seems to be dominated by trite and tuneless film-to-stage and 'juke box' musicals, Goodall’s music, with rousing foot stomping rhythms, uplifting choruses and exquisite melodies stands out head and shoulders above some of the modern day cacophony that passes for musical theatre.

As with the original novel, the musical version of The Hired Man, follows the fortunes over a period of several decades, of a young married couple, John, a hired labourer and coal miner and his passionate, restless wife Emily. We first meet John and Emily at a Hiring Fair in the late 1890s where John is chosen by a local farmer to be his hired man. As the young couple settle into their new home they begin to learn the customs and rituals of the land as well as the hopes and frailties of the people that will become their friends and neighbours. Little do John and Emily realise that the consequences of their actions in the close knit rural community will affect not only the rest of their lives but those of their children as well.

Although the focus of the musical is centred on John and Emily and their struggles to make a living from the land, the piece is also a study of how the rural labouring classes at the end of the nineteenth century underwent great social and political change that ultimately culminated in the bloody fields of France and the First World War. The production is billed as being, ‘an epic and heroic tale of love, betrayal and loyalty,’ and it does not disappoint.

Performed on a central revolving, raked stage, the production is sparsely but effectively presented. The various settings, such as open fields, mine shafts and the rural landscape are suggested by subtle changes in lighting and the clever use of minimal props. The bleak and uncompromising fells of the Cumbrian lowlands are brilliantly represented by large and impressive backdrops that move in and out of the action to highlight key dramatic moments.

As is the custom now with many musicals, the show is performed by a talented cast of actor-musicians. There is no attempt to do away with their instruments when they are in character, which for some could be a distraction. But given the way that director, Douglas Rintoul handles his excellent cast and the staging of the whole piece the presence of singers and their instruments strengthens rather than dilutes the strong feeling of ensemble that permeates the whole production. Occasionally, given that the performers are asked to do a lot more than Bragg and Goodall could have originally intended some of the vocal quality suffers but this is a minor quibble, given the overall high standard of the production and in particular the excellent acting from all of the eleven members of the cast.

Lauryn Redding last seen at the Coliseum Theatre in Bread & Roses is outstanding as Emily and is superbly matched by Oliver Hembrough as John. They are completely believable as a young couple who grow apart but are reconciled in old age when they recognise the true depth of their feelings. Other standout performances are given by Lloyd Gorman as Emily’s enduring love interest and Lucy Keirl as a young, feckless teenager desperate to marry at the age of 17, before she becomes too old.

The Coliseum Theatre has had its well publicised ups and downs in the last few months but with this production, co-produced with The Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch and Hull Truck Theatre it has produced a sure-fire hit. This is a production that I could happily see again and again and I urge anyone with a deep held love of well made, quality musicals to rush to Oldham to see this engaging and life-affirming show before its short run finishes on the 6th July.

Reviewer - Richard Hall
on - 20/6/19

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