“Her witty modern-day lyrics are reminiscent of the work of Lin-Manuel Miranda”
“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players”. Those immortal words the Bard penned in his rustic comedy, As You Like It, seem as true as ever in this recent musical adaptation of the play which makes its European debut. Produced by Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch in partnership with the National Theatre’s Public Acts, a national initiative to make inclusive, community theatre, it brings a one hundred-strong cast from all walks of life together to create this vibrant version which is unlike any other production of As You Like It you will have seen.
In a condensed telling of Shakespeare’s tale we find Duke Senior (Rohan Reckord) has been banished from the court by his brother Duke Frederick (Curtis Young), finding solace and a new home within the Forest of Arden, where many of his supporters begin to converge and take commune. In paranoid rage, Duke Frederick lashes out at anyone that threatens his authority, including his niece, Rosalind (Ebony Jonelle), who is exiled. Taking on a male disguise, she similarly flees to the Forest of Arden bringing in tow her cousin Celia (Marjorie Agwang), and the trusty clown Touchstone (Vedi Roy). However, before her banishment, Rosalind falls head over heels in love with Orlando (Linford Johnson) whom she must conceal her true emotions from when their paths cross again in the forest.
The original songs that interject this adaptation, help to flesh the characters out further, giving their actions and motives more depth. Composed by American Shaina Taub, she is certainly a name to listen out for in the future. Her witty modern-day lyrics are reminiscent of the work of Lin-Manuel Miranda and help to give a nearly 400-year old story a current relevance.
This may be a community project, but by and large the main characters are played by trained actors. Stand outs include the incredibly watchable Ebony Jonelle who offers a vivacious Rosalind, whilst Vedi Roy as Touchstone delivers the sassiest clown in town. Rohan Reckord has such a smooth voice it will undoubtedly give you goosebumps when he sings.
Nevertheless, it is the amalgamation between the trained actor and the ‘average Joe’ that really is something special, proving that a passion for theatre is what truly wins out and that anybody has a right and the capability to perform on stage. During the colossal group scenes, it is nigh impossible to not feel moved seeing a broad range of people of all ages, abilities, cultures, and backgrounds coming together. The sheer joy that beams from the stage is infectious. The carnival-like atmosphere and colourful costumes (Hayley Grindle and Daisy Blower) make it a party you never want to leave.
“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.