REVIEW: The Hired Man, The Landor

August 6, 2011

I’d never been to The Landor before, I didn’t know the show and thus everything about it, from the plot to the cast to the press night drinks, were a surprise. The Hired Man was adapted by Melvyn Bragg and British musical treasure Howard Goodall from Bragg’s novel of the same name, drawn from his grandfather’s stories about pre-war life in Cumbria.

The story follows the inhabitants of a small Cumbrian village as they start out as youngsters looking for farm work  at a hiring fair, their struggles as relationships mature and an increasing numbers of local men embark on dangerous work ‘down t’pit’, all this cut through by the disruption and devastation of World War I.

Bright-eyed young couple John and Emily Tallentire are the main two agonising over their life decisions. John is ably played by Joe Maxwell, his singing as open and pure as his character, who manages to make an irritatingly nice and moral bloke just edgy enough to be interesting. Catherine Mort is an interesting choice as Emily; while vocally she didn’t sparkle as much as the rest of the small but brilliant female cast, she brings a melancholy touch to the show and her acting is impressive, with real tears closing the first act. The Dissatisfied Wife is perhaps the hardest role to make appealing, and she did a good job with it.

The real magic is in the supporting cast, especially Les Mis graduate Martin Neely, delivering an Enjolras-type leader in Seth Tallentire. His rousing song about unionism oddly bridged the gap between labouring peacetime and chaotic wartime, but as I wanted to hear more from him, it sort of worked. Neely is one of the only cast members to remain completely poised and in control through speedy scene changes, energetic choreography and emotional turbulence, and draws the audience to him for this reason. It is the combination, though, of seasoned performers and drama school graduates that makes this cast so compelling. The amount of nerves and calm, tension and effortlessness exactly creates the differences in maturity and temperament you’d find in such a community, and the rawness of the younger performers really adds something – you wouldn’t want this show too polished.

The male chorus is the main reason to see The Hired Man. Every time another labourer or soldier had a solo, we were treated to a sensational voice. The vocal and acting strength in every performer is exceptional, and as a reviewer who has become bored of listening to weedy, pop-lite boys singing American musical theatre, this celebration of the male voice was such a treat. Beards, sweat and testosterone-filled tenors; I thought I’d died and gone to musical heaven.

Special mention must go to the beautifully-voiced Ian Daniels as the third point of Emily and John’s love triangle, as well as Abigail Matthews as their sweet little songbird May Tallentire – the perfect amount of innocence and freshness, while avoiding a period-drama cliché. Your eyes are continually drawn to the steely acting of Jamie Birkett and the sweet hopefulness of Kimberly Powell in the group numbers, no mean feat when you’re battling with thirteen strapping men. Sean-Paul Jenkinson also charmed as the wheeling-and-dealing Isaac.

The staging is slick, with Andrew Keates’ direction providing us with both witty dialogue and beautifully interpreted songs. The way Howard Goodall’s score weaves in repeated themes and connects the musical narrative is breathtaking, as are many of the vocal performances here. The group songs are infinitely more stirring than the solo numbers, however. Niall Bailey’s musical direction is perfection, and I’ve rarely seen actors so spot on with their musical cues, which often seem to come from nowhere. All round a tight team, with Cressida Carré’s choreography adding a touch of country-dancing joy and stomping-rhythm grittiness.

There are holes and swift fast-forwards in the narrative which prevent you from basking properly in the characters’ story, but overall The Hired Man is an important narrative, and far more worthy of funding and venue than so many vapid musicals I’ve seen in recent years. Melvyn Bragg feared while writing it that it was “a cavalcade of working class history so unfashionable it’s almost out of sight,” but what could matter more than real people’s lives, loves and tragedies? It isn’t a perpetual giggle, but neither is life sometimes; there is a reason why shows about nothing more glamorous than the human condition, like Les Misérables, have endured. There is something gritty, earthy and defiantly British about this piece that might just be the antidote to the Dirty Dancings of the theatre world. I definitely want to see more from the Landor and Andrew Keates after experiencing this show.

Runs until 27th August


One Response to “REVIEW: The Hired Man, The Landor”

  1. samfox69 Says:

    I totally agree with this excellent and well thought out review. I haven’t been so moved by a show in such a long time but myself and most of the audience were moved to tears by the exceptional musical arrangements by Niall Bailey and the flawless vocal performances by an extremely talented cast. This production deserves to be seen by a much wider audience…someone please make it happen!

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