"We are worth your shillings"
Marking the first major concert presentation of the show in over 20 years, The Hired Man in concert saw Howard Goodall and Melvyn Bragg’s 1984 musical take over the elegant surroundings of Cadogan Hall, for a glorious evening celebrating one of the all-time greats of British musical theatre writing. With a boutique orchestra conducted by Andrew Linnie, an ensemble of over 20 singers and a lead cast of bona fide West End and Broadway stars, it was a powerfully effective treatment of the material.
The Hired Man is based on Bragg’s 1969 novel, part of his Cumbrian Trilogy, following the lives of labourer and miner John Tallentire and his wife Emily as they battle first the hardship of agricultural life in a fast-industrialising world and then the impact of the First World War on their whole community. And supporting it, Goodall’s music and lyrics draws on English folk tradition, as well as his own melodious style, to create a soulful, stirring score that lingers long in the mind with its hummability and heartbreak.
For this concert, director Samuel Hopkins was able to secure John Owen-Jones (fresh from reprising the role of Valjean on Broadway) and Jenna Russell (recently in Doctor Faustus) and he couldn’t have picked a better pair for John and Emily. Being able to hear Owen-Jones use all the colours of the subtler side of his voice demonstrated just how formidable a leading man he really is. And there are simply few actors in the country as good at acting through song as Russell, even singing from a book behind a lectern she was just unbearably heartfelt.
On songs like ‘No Choir of Angels’ and ‘If I Could’ (joined on the latter by Matthew Seadon-Young’s powerfully voiced Jackson, the man in the middle of their marriage), these were moments of musical theatre perfection. The swell of the strings, Mark Etherington’s assured piano, the harmonies of the chorus, Bragg’s narration of his own story - the combination was just hugely seductive. And with strong support from the likes of Stewart Clarke (whose parents Paul Clarkson and Julia Hills actually created the roles of John and Emily in the original production), Evelyn Hoskins and Nigel Richards, The Hired Man has never sounded better.
This review was originally written for LondonTheatre1