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Posts Tagged ‘Melvyn Bragg’

This show is in my top ten musicals, probably the best British musical, certainly the best British musical score, so I take every opportunity to see it and this was my ninth. It didn’t let me down and indeed moved me more than most productions.

Melvyn Bragg’s story is a great sweep of late 19th / early 20th century Cumbrian life as we follow two generations of the Tallentire family from the land to the pits to the First World War and back to the land, through marriage, births, deaths and infidelity. What makes Brendan Matthew’s production stand out is that its more animated than I’ve ever seen it before, with terrific choreography / movement, from dance to hand gestures, by Charlotte Tooth.

Howard Goodall’s score is very much in the British choral tradition and it’s packed full of gorgeous melodies, and it’s the quality of the choruses that makes or breaks the show, and this is another aspect this production nails – very rousing, as they should be. The solo work is more variable as they fight both the band and the aircon, which is so inefficient they’d just as well turn it off, though in all fairness the vocals shone through more as the show progressed. The ending was like an emotional wave I’ve rarely experienced with this show.

I liked Justin Williams & Jonny Rust’s wooden backdrop, which brought intimacy to the home scenes but also facilitated the effective creation of pubs, mines, trenches and of course the hiring ring. In a hugely talented young ensemble I much admired Sam Peggs’ very athletic Isaac and Jack McNeill’s believably young Harry. Ifan Gwilym-Jones and Rebecca Gilliland, both outstanding in Matthew’s recent premiere of My Lands Shore in Walthamstow, rose to the challenge of the meaty roles of John and Emily Tallentire.

I love this show so much, and I loved this production. If you haven’t seen Howard Goodall’s masterpiece, go, and if you have, go again!

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I have to admit that I thought The Hired Man might be overambitious for NYMT, though on reflection I don’t know why as they’d done such a terrific job with Sweeney Todd four years ago. As it turned out it was thrilling and deeply moving in equal measure and an absolute triumph for this young company.

The Hired Man & I have been firm friends for thirty years now, but this is only the seventh staged production I’ve seen – though the third in as many years. Given WWI looms large in the second act the timing of this revival, in this 100th anniversary week of the outbreak of that war, is particularly poignant – something that wasn’t lost on an audience watching young people of a similar age perform last night.

Based on Melvyn Bragg’s epic novel of early 20th century Cumbrian life, we follow the Tallentire family from the land to the mines and the war and back to the land, with much tragedy along the way. It’s also a piece of social history, showing us the hirings of the title, where people bargained with potential employers, the horrors of mining & the beginnings of the union movement and of course the devastation of the first world war. The personal and social stories work seamlessly together and the show takes you on a captivating emotional journey.

Howard Goodall’s score is British through and through, with uplifting melodies and soaring choruses in keeping with both folk and choral traditions. With a cast of over 30, the choruses soared as well as they ever have and there were some lovely solo vocals too. MD Sarah Travis virtually invented the actor-musician approach and it works particularly well here, with a third of the cast doubling up. Dominic Harrison (17 years old!!!) brought great passion and energy to the lead part of John Tallentire and Amara Okereke (also 17!!!) as Emily sang beautifully. I loved Jacques Miche’s interpretation of Isaac and Will Sharma’s characterisation of Seth. Naomi Morris and Charlie Callaghan gave confident and moving performances as the Tallentire children, May and Harry – unlike most of the cast playing at or younger than their ages. Joe Eaton-Kent was an excellent Jackson and seemed way older than his 18 years.

So many of the scenes were handled well in Nikolai Foster’s superb staging, with very physical, muscular choreography from Nick Winston. Matthew Wright’s beautiful evocative set has a broken stone and grass ground, rising up through the hills to the sky. NYMT are lucky to have such a first class production team. The mine, the union meeting and the war scenes were particularly well staged. The St James space was opened up by removing the wings and the front two rows so even with a big cast there was plenty of room to move and for the show to breath.

Another wonderful production of this wonderful show and such an extraordinary achievement for a company in which only two have left their teens. Just two performances left and if you’re reading this on Saturday 16th August 2014 you should be there!

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The year after I saw the first production of this wonderful show in the West End in 1984 I was interviewed for the Laurence Olivier Awards panel, during which I told them defiantly that 42nd Street was not the Best Musical the previous year, this was. Afterwards I realised the producer of 42nd Street was on the panel, so imagine my surprise when I was appointed. I wanted to think it was because I was right, because I was, but was later told it was because they wanted public panel members who would hold their own amongst the professionals; for once, being opinionated was an advantage!

So here we are in Colchester 28 years later for only my 7th production (including the wonderful reunion concert in 1992) with the last one, a triumph for The Landor, still ringing in my ears (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2011/08/19/the-hired-man). By now I consider it to be the best British musical bar none, though it’s more of a folk opera – not a chorus girl in sight. An adaptation of Melvyn Bragg’s novel, its epic sweep over 23 years from 1898 to 1921 takes us from the land to the mines to the first world war, back to the mines and back to the land. Within this, we have the very personal story of the Tallentire family through happy times of marriage and births to the challenge of infidelity and the tragedy of death.

We start and end at a hiring fair where employers find and bargain with farm workers. Though lured by the higher wages in the mines, and side-tracked by the war, John Tallentire eventually returns to the land. In between, we see the devastation of the great war and the conditions miners had to endure for those extra pennies, leading to the birth of the unions. The social history blends well with the personal story and the superb score, seeped in British choral tradition and folk songs, makes it deeply moving yet uplifting.

Director Daniel Buckroyd’s production evokes the Cumbrian landscape very simply but effectively with platforms and screens bathed in warmth. He has assembled a fine cast which is particularly strong in the choruses. David Hunter brings real feeling to John’s songs and Julie Atherton sings and acts her heart out (I’ve only seen her in modern – mostly American – shows, so it’s great to see her so effective in a ‘period piece’). The musical standards, under MD & pianist Richard Reeday, are outstanding; it sounds like musicians also playing roles, rather than actors playing instruments as we see in Watermill shows. I thought Rachel Gladwin’s harp playing was particularly beautiful.

I saw and enjoyed Buckroyd’s 2008 touring production when it popped in to Greenwich but this is even better. After Greenwich, I emailed the NT’s director and told him to stop neglecting British musical theatre and get over to Greenwich and tell me why this show isn’t in the Cottesloe. To his credit he replied, but all we’ve had since is London Road, another show in a genre of its own. Time for another email, I think!

A lovely production of a lovely show – two more weeks in Colchester, then The Curve in Leicester for another two. Now, where’s the Leicester train timetable…..

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When I first saw this Howard Goodall musical 26 years ago, it completely changed my attitude to musical theatre and opened my eyes to the possibilities of serious storytelling through music. It was a ground-breaking piece and the first British musical of its type (well, there haven’t been that many since). From the US, we’d had West Side Story of course and Rogers & Hammerstein’s attempts to tackle serious issues in their shows, but here was a very British story with a uniquely British choral score.

It’s so rarely produced that I grab any chance to see it. In 1992 there was a terrific concert version, some time later a lovely small-scale production at the Finborough, a shortened amateur one at the Edinburgh fringe and then four years ago a touring version from Eastern Angles which paid a visit to Greenwich; but here it was on my doorstep in Clapham at one of my favourite theatres. The rioters almost ruined my chances when the show I had booked for had to be cancelled, and last night was my only free night to catch it before the migration north for the Edinburgh festival.

Based on Melvyn Bragg’s book, the hirings of the title are where men and employers met and contracted with each other, and that’s where we start. The first half is set in rural Cumbria where they eke out a living on the land, some chasing a ‘better life’ in the mines where we see the beginnings of trade unionism. John & Emily are devoted to each other; their relationship even survives ‘a moment of madness’ when Emily strays with the bosses son Jackson whilst John is away. In the second half, we take in the first world war and a mining disaster before we return to the land and back to the hiring.

Last night it was as thrilling as that very first time. Andrew Keates terrific production fits the Landor so well. Freya Groves design oozes authenticity, creating fields, pubs, houses, war trenches and mines very effectively with bales of straw and barrels and simple period costumes. There’s excellent choreography from Cressida Carre and realistic fights directed by Andrew Ashenden. Even the dialects are good! It has the best score of any British musical and those choruses soared. The new orchestration for piano and string trio by MD Niall Bailey is excellent and the singing is outstanding. I can’t praise this fine cast enough; they brought great passion and commitment, shivers up my spine and a few tears to my eyes. It’s very hard to believe that Joe Maxwell as John and Catherine Mort as Emily have recently graduated (Guildford School of Acting should be very proud); they are as fine a pair of leads as you could wish for. Abigail Matthews is lovely as daughter May in the second half and amongst a uniformly fine ensemble, I much admired Ian Daniels as Jackson and Sean-Paul Jenkinson as John’s brother Seth.

My one regret is that I had to leave for Edinburgh 8 hours later so I can’t go back! This is a superb revival of a great show; a triumph for everyone involved.

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