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The Hired Man

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
I'm late to the party with this production, which has already enjoyed a raft of rave reviews and created a noise well beyond the confines of the Clapham pub in which it's performed.

And how beautifully it is performed, by a young company who highlight just what an embarrassment of riches this country boasts when it comes to musical theatre talent.

The Hired Man, adapted by Melvyn Bragg from his own novel and with music by Howard Goodall, is the kind of piece that would struggle to get a revival on a major stage in these dire economic times, even though, ironically, it has much to say to the unemployed 'underclass' of today.

Set in Cumbria, it's both a love story and a document of the dual effects of industrialisation and war on a tight-knit rural community. As earnest John Tallentire (excellent newcomer Joe Maxwell) works tirelessly on the land and under it to provide for his family, he fails to see that his wife Emily (Catherine Mort) has caught the eye of his employer's son Jackson (Ian Daniels).

Although the needless slaughter of the Great War provides a resolution of sorts, there is further heartache in store for the embattled Tallentires when their underage son Harry (Ben McMath) follows his father to the trenches.

Spanning the years 1898 to 1921, the story is epic and Goodall's muscular score rises to match it. The 17-strong ensemble stomp their feet and raise their fists as they spit out the opening number “Song of the Hired Man”, filling the tiny space with a raucous energy that prevails throughout.

Director Andrew Keates marshals the action with fittingly military precision, aided by Freya Groves' neat but simple design – coal on the walls on bales on the floor. And special mention must go to lighting designer Howard Hudson, who works wonders with limited resources and puts many a large-scale lighting rig to shame.

The narrative wobbles ever so slightly in the second act, perhaps victim of Bragg's over-eager filleting, but this is still a barnstorming production of a great British musical that boasts a wealth of performing and creative talent.


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