The Hired Man
Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch
Reviewed – 30th April 2019
“the songs range from rousing ensemble numbers through romantic duets and tortured solos in time-honoured musical theatre fashion”
The Hired Man was published in 1969; the first part of Melvyn Bragg’s Cumbrian trilogy. It is set in and around a small Cumbrian village and follows the fortunes of John Tallentire, a farm labourer and miner, from his youth at the turn of the century, through the first World War, until the time just after his wife’s death, about twenty years later. Bragg wrote it as a homage to his grandfather, and it is an unashamedly nostalgic take on Britain’s rural past.
The story begins at a hiring fair, and John is taken on as a farm labourer. His young wife Emily comes to the town to join him, but her eye soon strays and she finds herself yearning for another local man, Jackson Pennington, who begs her to leave with him. John discovers their love and the men fight. Emily stays with her husband. Act two is set sixteen years later. John is now a miner, and he and Emily have teenage children. WWI then enters the story. John, his brothers and his son Harry (just shy of eighteen) join up and Harry dies. John returns, narrowly escapes a mining disaster, Emily dies, and John rejoins the ranks of hired men to re-begin his life on the land.
It’s a straightforward tale, and is ably told, by an energetic cast of actor-musicians. Jean Chan’s production design is well realised, and Douglas Rintoul directs with a sure hand. There are some striking stage moments – the trenches and the mining rescue are particularly effective – and the songs range from rousing ensemble numbers through romantic duets and tortured solos in time-honoured musical theatre fashion, but there is nothing here to really seize the imagination or the heart.
Oliver Hembrough and Lauryn Redding take the main roles of John and Emily, and each gives a committed and connected performance, but the pedestrian nature of so many of the songs, both lyrically and musically, means that they can never really take flight. Similarly, Samuel Martin was in good voice and exuded charm as John’s devil-may-care brother Isaac, but he had nowhere to go dramatically, and despite losing his leg in the war, remained the same sporting fellow he was when he first appeared.
Ultimately, The Hired Man is a one-dimensional nostalgic confection. There is no complexity of plot or character; men work, drink, fight and sport, and women exist purely in the domestic sphere. It is a version of England with which we are all familiar, and has been continually repackaged for the past 100 years, from the Hovis ads to Call the Midwife. ‘I’d be happy in a place like this/Now I see what I’ve always missed’, Emily’s daughter sings at the beginning of the second act. The key to this show is whether or not you agree with her.
Reviewed by Rebecca Crankshaw
Photography by Mark Sepple
The Hired Man
Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch until 18th May
Previously reviewed at this venue:
Reviewed – 28th October 2017
“Johnson embodies Marilyn’s vivacity, fragility and bravery in a way that is delightful and ultimately heartbreaking”
This production of Terry Johnson’s play is beautifully suited to the intimacy of the Arcola. The action takes place in a hotel room during the course of one night. The four characters are unnamed, they are the Professor, the Actress, the Ball Player and the Senator but we know who they are, as they are iconic; Einstein, Marilyn Monroe, Joe DiMaggio and Senator Joe McCarthy. I wish the conversations between Einstein and Monroe had really taken place but, although they almost certainly did not, can we be sure of that?
The plausibility of the events and their unlikelihood combine in a delicious uncertainty that is mirrored in conversations about relativity, Heisenberg and Schrödinger’s cat. If this all sounds a bit heavy please don’t be put off, this is a very funny play. If you can imagine Marilyn Monroe explaining relativity to Einstein, using a toy car, some torches and two toy trains, you can see the wonderful absurd genius of Johnson’s work. Both Monroe, played by Alice Bailey Johnson and and Simon Rouse’s Einstein are magnificent. Johnson embodies Marilyn’s vivacity, fragility and bravery in a way that is delightful and ultimately heartbreaking. Rouse’s Einstein is like a much loved and very clever uncle, who takes the extraordinary night in his stride. The relationship that develops between the two is touching and believable. The real Marilyn was widely read, and certainly not a dumb blond. Her notebooks include musings about many topics, including the renaissance and recipes for stuffing mix. Marilyn was an invention and here we see glimpses of what the real woman may have been like. I would love her to have chatted to Einstein but, despite rumours that they had an affair, they probably did not even meet.
Marilyn is not the first visitor to Einstein’s Manhattan hotel room that night. That is Senator McCarthy, played with menace and increasing vitriol by Tom Mannion. He wants to ensure Einstein’s attendance at the Un-American Affairs Committee in the morning, but Einstein is not to be bullied. The next visitor is Marilyn, coming straight from filming the famous skirt over the hot air vent scene from ‘The Seven Year Itch.’ And then her husband, Joe DiMaggio, arrives. He is full of jealousy and suspicion, furious about the scene Marilyn has just filmed, which was watched by thousands of men. He has no idea how to handle his clever, damaged wife. Oliver Hembrough’s gum chewing DiMaggio gets affirmation from finding his picture on baseball cards, and blusters and postures in a way that is both infuriating yet somehow touching in his inability to understand.
This is a play about fame and politics, about surviving and making choices. There is sadness and doubt in everyone but especially McCarthy, who grows more brutish as the night wears on. Marilyn says that she has ‘more than I dreamed of and nothing I want,’ her fragility is haunting. Einstein is shadowed with guilt because of the contribution his work made to the development of the atom bomb. DiMaggio truly loves his wife but has no idea how to keep her. There is no neat resolution here, but the themes of the play have relevance to current political concerns in the States and the treatment of women in Hollywood today. This is a timely revival of Johnson’s play and well worth seeing.
Reviewed by Katre
Photography by Alex Brenner
is at The Arcola Theatre until 18th November