The Hired Man
22nd July 2017
Recently, we saw Andrew Linnie in a concert at Cadogan Hall give probably what will be considered for a long time the definitive performance of this, Howard Goodall's breakthrough first musical play. Any company taking it on with memories of that success still fresh in audiences' minds must have all its wits about it in order to make the best case for it possible, within whatever means are at its disposal. The Union Theatre has certainly – time and time again – proved its miniature productions can be an aesthetic or artistic match for anything that larger scale presentations can offer: ‘Chess' or ‘Bad Girls' are only two examples from the past few seasons that have proven this. Hopes were therefore running high when the Union announced it was reviving this show; we reflected upon its established legacy in Goodall's ‘trilogy' of ‘The Dreaming', ‘Love Story‘ and ‘Girlfriends'. What would be in store?
The production we have here is certainly well cast. Ifan Gwilym-Jones is a sincere and troubled John Tallentire, and Rebecca Gilliland a clear-voiced, always truthful Emily. Luke Kelly is a bold and forthright source of marital trouble in the form of Jackson Pennington and Christopher Lyne a sober, Des Grieux-like Pennington, with other featured parts taken by Kara Taylor Alberts, Jack McNeill, Sam Peggs, Jonathan Carlton, Megan Armstrong, Matthew Chase, Rebecca Withers, Aaron Davey, Laurel Dougall and Nick Brittain. Oddly, though, the most magnetic stage presence on show is the ensemble player who gets barely two lines of dialogue in the whole evening, Lori McLare: she is quite a discovery, with strongly drawn features that project an ever-changing array of expressions and moods, a balletic sense of movement, and an ability to be fascinating even when standing completely still. One wonders where her minute attention to detail has come from, since it does not appear to be a characteristic of the production as a whole.
This is an epic tale of a family through tumultuous times, charting their progress from working the land, into the coalmines, then into the trenches, and finally back to the land again. The particular episodes need to be articulated clearly, and the chain of events taking us from one to another have to be made perfectly transparent and credible. Even the original production of this work, when I saw it at the Astoria Theatre in the West End, struggled at times to achieve that. Remarkably, Samuel Hopkins' direction of the ‘action' on the narrow platform of the Cadogan Hall, against all the odds, did tell the story with astonishing clarity and naturalness. There, projections, rather than furniture and props, were used to create a sense of changing place. The chorus was employed sparingly, only drawn in when required to sing, in an oratorio-like manner, pushing the focus of the event more firmly onto the central characters. Tellingly, Hopkins knew exactly when to stop the action and allow stillness and silence to be eloquent punctuation points: the script is often sparsely written, especially in the delineation of the interior psychological processes that drive the main figures along. Actors have to be allowed time to ‘digest' the actions of others, and the audience needs time to register this.
Here, rather the opposite methodology seems to apply. The ensemble is onstage and busily occupied with doing any number of naturalistic things for a great deal of the production. Not only that, the little 3-piece ensemble tucked under the stairs (Richard Bates, MD and keys, Sophia Goode, violin, and Dominic Veall, cello) seems to play almost without interruption: vast stretches of dialogue are now swathed in a cheerfully babbling torrent of quavers, music that tends to soften the impact of anything said over, or – as is more often the case – under, it. I would like to know how many people feel this helps them to identify more closely with the speakers. I would also love to know the actors' opinions of what it is like to have to (a) work sufficiently hard to be heard above the sound of the band, and (b) work even harder to express thoughts and ideas that are often contrary in tone to the music being played. And when you consider that the director has made them all perform barefoot (poor Ifan Gwilym-Jones has already sustained a visible injury because of this astonishing demand), you probably find yourself asking some pretty serious questions about the intentions of the production.
The problems do not end there. As if all this were not enough, the venue is pretty warm and lacks a functioning air-conditioning system. In place of that, at least two fairly noisy machines are left running through the whole performance, their purpose – it seems – is to pump a little cooler air into the balmy atmosphere of the auditorium. The hope is laudable, the results are sorry. Sadly, it now feels to the audience as if the actors are having to perform the show in the engine room of the RMS Titanic, an impression reinforced by Justin Williams and Jonny Rust's stage design of a claustrophobic wall of wooden plates, which do rather resemble emergency repairs to a damaged vessel. Add to that costumes which barely change with passing decades (thanks to Carrie-Ann Stein), and lighting (by the relatively inexperienced Stuart Glover) that goes on and off and up and down and from left to right almost at will and frequently wholly independently of the stage action, and you have a recipe for a pretty definitive disaster.
It is entirely to the credit of the cast that this catastrophe is averted. They heroically battle through all obstacles thrown in their path and do what they can to rescue from this chaos a believable and beautiful performance, even though many of them for a lot of the time do look disconcertingly lost and aimless. Charlotte Tooth's choreography is often very sympathetic to their ensemble moments, although she seems every bit at a loss to understand what the production is trying to be about. I'm sure director Brendan Matthew has his reasons for his choices, and I wish I could say that I knew what they were, but for the time being they appear to elude me. This is a shame. His recent production of ‘My Land's Shore‘ for Ye Olde Rose & Crowne (a similarly epic tale of working class folk) was masterful and magisterial. Working with some of that cast and much of the same creative team here, the same magic does not appear to have been created and who can say why?
Meanwhile, there's a fair rendition of the text available here, and one that will do, particularly if you haven't seen anything better. This may not go down in history as one of the Union's more successful productions. I hope valuable lessons from it will be learned. The cast deserve our support and commendation: everyone else – please try to help them more.