A Cumbrian family’s experience of one the most turbulent periods in history is also a tender love story in Curve’s emotional but ultimately life-affirming co-production, The Hired Man.
Based on Melvyn Bragg’s 1969 novel of the same name, with music and lyrics by Howard Goodall (composer of the Blackadder theme tune amongst others), The Hired Man tells the story of John and Emily as they begin married life in a small village in the Lake District at the beginning of the 20th century. Scraping a living from the land, their grim existence is played out amongst the hard labour, dirt and destruction of the pits and Passchendaele.
But this musical is not depressing. Thanks to Goodall’s stirring melodies together with a strong cast this is an absorbing human story. Moments of heart-rending passion mix with fear: families who, by the fickle chance of birth, are unable to avoid life at the mercy of the mines or the Western Front. Goodall’s uplifting harmonies hark back to traditional folk music of the day and I often had the sense there were more than thirteen actors and musicians on stage such was the power of the ensemble pieces.
Mark Dymock’s lighting combine with designer Juliet Shillingford’s simple stage design to imaginatively portray the beauty of the Lake District landscape as well as the charred horror of the trenches and claustrophobia of the mines.
John (David Hunter) and Emily’s (Julie Atherton) lives together form the musical’s heart, conveying the frustrations and emotions of life events over which they have little control. Hunter is particularly moving as he captures John’s gradual change from youthful optimism to cynical and tired middle age.
Musicians also double as cast, moving seamlessly between roles and instruments and underlining the integral part music played in homes and communities. A reflection perhaps of another aspect in our history when folktales and music were the only respite from long days working the land.
Bragg’s novel was inspired by the life of his grandfather and he reflects on the lives of his ancestors: “It astonished me how they made so much of so little and what they got out of and gave to a life which could so easily have defeated them.”
The Hired Man was first performed in 1984 but now has particular resonance as we approach the centenary of the Great War. Life was hard yet this portrayal of a small village a century ago shows the human spirit at its best with director Daniel Buckroyd extracting honest emotion over sentimentality.
This is a rare opportunity to see a show worthy of the West End and I recommend you see it.
The Hired Man continues at Leicester’s Curve Studio theatre until 27th April 2013. For tickets go to www.curveonline.co.uk or contact the Box Office on 0116 242 3595.