THE HIRED MAN
The Albany Theatre, Coventry, Friday 4th May, 2018
If Thomas Hardy upped sticks and moved north to Cumbria (or Cumberland, as it was known then) the chances are he would have come up with something very like Melvyn Bragg’s family saga about farm-workers and miners near Cockermouth. There is plenty of Hardyesque bonhomie among the lower orders, strife from the owners, plus most crucially, a love triangle.
Ian Page is John, the eponymous hired man, newlywed to Emily (Jenne Rhys-Williams). Page has a striking tenor voice and comes into his own later in the story with a plaintive song about his son. Rhys-Williams, as female lead, bears the emotional brunt of the story, singing the gamut of feelings in a moving portrayal. The couple is supported by lively turns from Anya McCutcheon as daughter May, and Will Page as stubborn son Harry.
Thom Stafford (no relation) is eminently likeable as John’s hedonistic brother Isaac, contrasting nicely with Gavin Whichello’s Seth, the other, more principled brother, trying to stir up interest in a miners’ union.
The rest of the ensemble get their moments too. There is pleasing character work from Julian Bissell as the landowner and other roles; Ralph Toppin-Mackenzie as a vicar; Iona Cameron’s Sally gets a lovely duet with Emily about prospective lovers…
Mark Shaun Walsh is magnificent as the handsome, caddish Jackson Pennington, brimming with emotional intensity and vocal power. His scenes with Rhys-Williams are electrifying, his characterisation so engaging, we care about the character’s fate, despite his transgressions.
Director Kirsteen Stafford (no relation either) works her ensemble of 12 hard and to great effect. Group scenes are handled well and there are moments of brilliance: a slow-motion fight between John and Jackson while Emily emotes through song is particularly well realised (with fight direction by Thom Stafford).
Howard Goodall’s rich, stirring and moving score is performed by just two musicians. Musical director Chris Davis and Maddy Evans sound like more than two, delivering all the colours of the music, achieving great variety in tone within a unifying piano-and-violin based sound. The ensemble singing is beautiful where it needs to be, and rousing and atmospheric as the story demands. Chris Lamb’s emblematic set evokes farm fences, pubs, the trenches… in an economic but versatile design.
It’s an involving, melodramatic piece with some good tunes, excellently presented, managing to be both intimate and epic in scale. We get the sense of family and marital strife (universals) against the backdrop of a changing world – oh yes, the First World War rears its ugly and unnecessary head too, changing lives and circumstances forever. It’s very moving too – expect to come away with wet cheeks!