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27 March 2013


The Hired Man
Mercury Theatre and Curve Leicester
Wednesday 27th March 2013
Melvyn Bragg's homage to his grandfather, following the lives of a simple Cumbrian working family, may not at first seem an obvious choice for a musical.  However the rich, haunting score of this beautiful tale raises the frank story to epic proportions, with a heart-breaking result.
Set at the turn of the twentieth century young, hopeful newlyweds John and Emily escape to the fells to work the land, have their baby and start a new life together.  Their powerfully human story unfolds as they leave the land behind for the Cumbrian pits, and eventually the inevitability of war.  Bragg's book charts the choices, decisions and compromises that go on to shape the couple's lives together; uncomplicated and direct the style suits these ordinary working class characters.  The score, by Howard Goodall, gracefully echoes of tradition and folk music, creating an unmistakably English feel throughout the show.
Performances throughout this ensemble piece are impressive, with a supporting cast of talented actor-musicians playing key roles as well as their respective instruments in the on-stage band.  Jill Cardo is particularly charming as the feisty May, and Kit Orton is entirely captivating as rogue Jackson.  John is played with sincerity by David Hunter, whose openness is enchanting throughout and movingly affecting by the final scenes.  The early passions of Julie Atherton's effervescent Emily are, via the ups and downs of life's tribulations, gradually mellowed into an overwhelming love for her family, in a notably powerful, touching performance. 
Impressive though the acting quality is, it is the musical numbers that mark this production above any other I have seen at the Mercury.  Outstanding vocal performances across the board soar into the captivated audience, scored by the consummate integrated band.  Success is without exception, but Atherton is particularly glorious and Hunter effortlessly charming, with the vocal highlight being the Act 1 climax "If I Could" in which Orton also easily matches the established quality. 
The almost bare set suits the straightforward simplicity of the overall production, with the staging carefully designed to add height and spacial interest while retaining maximum performance space.  The setless nature of the production places a greater emphasis on the lighting design, which is varied and atmospheric, creating changes in tone across the various periods and locations seamlessly.  Costumes are also suitably straightforward, clearly showing corresponding classes and contrasting locations through deliberate, subtle details.
Daniel Buckroyd's first production directing for the Mercury since taking over as Artistic Director has proven his worth, and put Colchester firmly on the map as a top-quality producing house.  I cannot wait to see what he has in store for the remainder of the season.

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