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Posts Tagged ‘Douglas Rintoul’

This show has been part if my life now for 35 years, since the original West End production at the Astoria all those years ago. I consider it the best British musical of my lifetime and I never tire if it. Its score, seeped in choral and folk traditions, has so many gorgeous melodies it’s always uplifting.

Based on Melvyn Bragg’s book, inspired by his grandfather’s life, it’s an epic sweep of several decades of Cumbrian social history from the closing years of the 19th century to immediately after the First World War. The Tallantire’s move from the land to the mines and back, living through challenges to their relationship, children, war and death. In 1984 some thought it wasn’t an appropriate subject for musical theatre, a genre largely occupied by shows about chorus girls getting their big break and chirpy (mostly American) romantic comedies. One year later the English version of Les Miserables arrived, but this broke the ground, with the bonus of being quintessentially British.

Douglas Rintoul’s production uses the now well established actor-musician mode, but with musical standards under Benn Goddard’s direction way higher than most. Jean Chan’s simple design, beautifully lit by Prema Mehta, is more impressionistic than realistic and very evocative, with very effective use of a revolve by Jane Gibson’s movement. With some playing two, or in one case multiple roles, the cast of just eleven, including show MD Tom Self, manage to bring scenes in mines, trenches, union meetings and of course hirings to life, led by Oliver Hembrough as a very charismatic John and Lauryn Redding as a very passionate Emily. Lara Lewis and James William-Pattison are lovely as children May & Harry, the latter doubling up to play Joe Sharp. It really is a fine ensemble, with Lloyd Gorman as Jackson, TJ Holmes as Seth, Samuel Martin as Isaac and Jon Bonner transforming from Pennington into Blacklock, recruiting officer and vicar!

I always think the sign of a great Hired Man is how much the second act moves you, and how uplifted you feel back at the hiring as it end, and this one brought tears to my eyes, not just the story, but the beauty of the music and its interpretation. You have until 18th May to catch it in Hornchurch, then in Hull and Oldham. Be there to see this ground-breaking masterpiece of British theatre.

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A very early revival for this 2014 show, a new smaller scale actor-musician production, is showing at the nearest producing theatre to the Ford Dagenham plant, just five miles away. You could hear and feel the connection the audience made with the story. I’d loved the show in the West End and couldn’t resist seeing it again. One of my better decisions as it turns out; it’s an excellent production. 

The 1968 strike by the Dagenham machinists started as a dispute about down-grading through job evaluation but became a key moment in the campaign for equal pay, a battle which in truth continues to this day. They had to win over their own union reps, their male colleagues (many their husbands, boyfriends, fathers, and brothers) and the TUC before the government would intervene. It’s largely told through Rita, their unlikely and reluctant leader, whose relationship with her husband Eddie comes under great strain. She finds an unlikely ally in the Ford site manager’s posh wife and a powerful enemy in the parent company’s hit man (who seemed very Trump-like last night!).

The show works well because it presents us with important social history in a very entertaining way. Richard Bean’s book and Richard Thomas’ lyrics are very funny and very authentic. As Mark Shenton says in his programme note, there have been a few of musicals revolving around strikes – Billy Elliott, The Pajama Game, The Cradle Will Rock – but surely this is the funniest and the edgiest. I will forever be puzzled why it had such a mixed reception and a ridiculously short life in the West End, as this lovely revival reminds me.

The musical standards are very high with 20 of the 21 cast contributing instrumentation. Daniella Bowen and Alex Tomkins were excellent as Rita and Eddie O’Grady. Foul-mouthed Beryl is a peach of a part and Angela Bain was terrific. The always wonderful Claire Machin made a great job of Barbara Castle, clearly relishing the role. The rest of the ensemble, half of them doubling or tripling, was first class. I don’t think I’ve seen the work of director Douglas Rintoul, the Queens newly appointed AD, but on this showing I’d very much like to see more.

The show was 45 minutes shorter than my round-trip to Hornchurch, but it was well worth going. Head East, folks.

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