“No greater pleasure than work done well”
The Hired Man was Howard Goodall’s first musical, setting Melvyn Bragg’s story of turn-of-the-century everyday rural Cumbrian life to a score inspired by Kurt Weill but primarily influenced by English choral and folk music. Based on events that happened to Bragg’s grandfather, the plot revolves around farmhand John Tallentine, his wife Emily and their family during a period of considerable social and economic upheaval as agriculture declines, pit mining advances and the shadow of the First World War threatens everything and everyone.
Though the scope of the story is huge, taking in a significant chunk of British social history, it is actually intimately told by focusing in on this single family and how the larger events impact their daily lives. In this respect, Andrew Keates’ production at the Landor is a great match of venue and material as we are taken right into the heart of this story and the struggles of its tightly-knit society to find just a little daily happiness as they work the land whether through a pie and a pint in the local or breaking marriage vows.
Niall Bailey’s band of piano and strings is perfectly suited to the graceful swells of Goodall’s score and the decision not to stint on the ensemble pays great dividends as the rich sound created by the 17 cast members is just gorgeous to listen to as melody lines harmonise and counterpoint each other. There’s a real elegance to Goodall’s compositions which is matched by consistently strapping performances across the main roles: Joe Maxwell’s strong-voiced, dependable John, Martin Neely and Sean-Paul Jenkinson as his brothers and Ian Daniels’ seductive Jackson. There’s a surfeit of beards and tweed in the predominantly male company and pleasingly so, it brings a real earthy tone to the show that should confound musical naysayers but also lends an authenticity to the emotion of the piece.
The vast scope of the backgrounding context does mean that some story points are dealt with rather cursorily as we sweep through time, equally this means that a healthy pace is maintained. And in Freya Groves’ open design which maximises the playing space yet still atmospherically and gloomily lit by Howard Hudson, this powerful, moving, intimately epic story brings history to vivacious, personal life and proves itself a truly great, British musical.