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The Hired Man (Bolton)

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
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It managed five months in the West End back in the mid-80s and it still pops up from time to time here and there but this is, to my knowledge, the first professional production of The Hired Man in Greater Manchester. So thanks to the Octagon for that.

In the event however it is something of a mixed blessing.

Melvyn Bragg and Howard Goodall’s evocation of rural Cumbria in the early years of the 20th century is based on Bragg’s epic family saga, set on the windswept moors and in the dangerous coal mines under the Irish Sea.

Farm labourer John Tallentire (Kieran Hill, with his third impressive performance of the season) and his wife Emily (Bury-born, ex-Emmerdale’s Amy Nuttall) are hired by a local farmer but when work takes John away from home and his new child, Emily is subjected to the advances of the farmer’s son Jackson (John Cusworth).

Then there’s John’s pleasure-living brother Isaac (David Ricardo-Pearce) and the coal-mining Seth (Tobias Beer), the latter trying to unionise his colleagues.

Time rolls on and the First World War makes its impact on the small village as the brothers go off to fight the Germans, with John’s son Harry following shortly after. Not everyone will survive…

The Octagon’s production – directed by their artistic director David Thacker – is just about as good as it could be. It’s impressively large, with a cast of 10 principals plus a chorus of 16, a huge wooden-planked two tier set and lots of light and plenty of sound and fury during the war scenes. Performances are strong right across the board.

The problem is with the piece itself. The story fails to exert a strong enough gip, characters consistently fail to emerge with any real depth and it isn’t until the very end that convincing emotions manage to break through.

Goodall’s score is even more of a problem. Scaled down from the original it is played here – very effectively - on keyboards, double bass, cello, violin and trumpet. Suffused with a folk feel and featuring various chorus numbers, it’s often on the verge of the big tune but never makes it. In too many places its background jollity is strangely at odds with the subject matter and so often the story could be better told without it.

So, for me, much talent and effort has been applied to a show that doesn’t deserve it. Much more interestingly, I see that the season closer in 2011 is Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd and that really is a show that’s worth doing.

 - Alan Hulme


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