Thursday, June 12, 2008

The Hired Man

What a tender and involving little show. And with a likable and energetic young cast to boot! I never know what to expect from new musicals; last season new musicals represented some of my most miserable experiences in the theatre. Luckily that wasn’t the case with Brits Off Broadway’s new chamber production of THE HIRED MAN at 59E59 Theaters.

Set in rural England in the early part of the 20th century, THE HIRED MAN tells the story of a young married couple, John and Emily (Richard Colvin and Claire Sundin), and their struggle to carve a living from the land -- and later the mines -- just as the rhythms of country life are being interrupted by the gathering storm of war in Europe. 

Melvyn Bragg adapted the musical’s book from his 1969 novel. The show features lovely music and lyrics by Howard Goodall that hooked me right from the rousing opening number, “Song of the Hired Men.” This song was reprised at the end, leaving me singing it in my head as I left and the man in front of me singing it out loud.

The actors have good voices, especially Colvin in the moving song “What Would You Say to Your Son?” in which he anguishes over his son’s desire to join him in the coal mine. The cast also features Lee Foster, Katie Howell, Simon Pontin, David Stothard, Stuart Ward and Andrew Wheaton. 

I did find fault with the actors’ accents. At intermission I asked my friend Mary if the show was supposed to be in Ireland or England. (I hadn’t read the program yet.) She thought Ireland; I thought England. The confusion was because both accents were used, and some even sounded a bit Australian. Juliet Shillingford’s set further confused the matter because it looked like some place in the American Wild West. I thought maybe these people were all a bunch of immigrants who had settled on the prairie. The inconsistency between accents, coupled with the strange set, gave the show an amateur feel that put a dent in the otherwise strong production.

In a touching program note, Bragg says he based his book on his grandfather’s life. “What I wanted to do in the book was not only present the personal story of the sort of man whose life is so rarely written about, but also to chronicle and bring alive that cavalcade of British history which swept us into a new century and into a war to end all wars.”

He says at first he resisted the idea of turning the book into a film or play, but Goodall’s music changed his mind, “coming, as it does, out of that ancient English choral tradition which has influenced so many of our best 20th century composers. . . The music, though -- apart from its own qualities -- fills out the feelings and completes many strong emotions unspoken in that walk of life.”

THE HIRED MAN was well received in England where The Guardian hailed it as “a wholemeal alternative to sugary musicals and presents a lesson in how to produce an authentically English strain of music theatre, with a harmonic language closer to Delius or Vaughan Williams than Disney and Lloyd Webber.” The Telegraph said, “Howard Goodall’s score has the undulating beauty of the landscape it describes. Not to be missed!” 
 THE HIRED MAN plays for a limited engagement through Sunday, June 29. Tickets are $50 ($35 for 59E59 Members). To purchase tickets, call Ticket Central at (212) 279-4200 or go to For more information, visit or 

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