Nostalgia, as the saying goes, isn’t what it used to be. Well, actually, it’s thriving; perhaps a response to the harshness of modern living, from War Horse to Larkrise To Candleford, and a plethora of other television and stage work, we are spoilt for choice of this sepia-tinted genre.
And The Hired Man is no different. First penned as a novel by Melvyn Bragg in 1969, with a libretto by Bragg and a score and lyrics by Howard Goodall added in 1984, it’s a starkly realistic look at life in a Cumbrian village at the dawn of the 20th Century, in a sparkling joint production between the Mercury Theatre and the Leicester Curve Theatre.
The central characters are John Tallentire, and his two brothers, and John’s wife, Emily. But this is no rose-coloured reminiscence; life in the fictional village of Crossbridge is brutal, subsisting on a pittance from either the coalmines or the farms.
Bragg’s story is a heart-rending one of betrayal and loss, perfectly underpinned by Goodall’s evocative score and powerful, almost operatic, performances from an ensemble cast.
David Hunter shines as the once idealistic and cheerful John, while Julie Atherton’s Emily has a tougher and more dangerous edge that threatens to destabilise further a challenging home life. With storm clouds gathering over the Lakes as well as Europe, we know fairly early on that this is not going to be a light-hearted romp across the fells.
Daniel Buckroyd puts his 13-strong cast of actor/musicians through their paces with rigour and they rise to the challenge admirably. Most play multiple roles and imbue the Cumbrian landscape and the later French battlefields with an indomitable spirit that encapsulates the age.
Julia Shillingford has created a multi-purpose, split-level set that replicates perfectly a craggy Lake District exterior and a dilapidated tied cottage.
But, while The Hired Man looks appealing and is a story told with passion and conviction, it is Goodall’s score that truly stars. Sentimental, yes, but never mawkish, each song moves the narrative along, taking the audience on a charming if rather poignant story. Richard Reeday's four-piece orchestra may be small but the sound it produces is by turn soaring and insidious.
Highly recommended but don’t forget to take some tissues!