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Posts Tagged ‘Oldham Coliseum’

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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I was lucky to be working in the North-West in the summer of 1986 when this show had it’s world premiere. With the music of Howard Goodall’s first show The Hired Man still ringing in my ears, off I went to Oldham Coliseum. The cast were a bunch of then unknowns, many of who went on to become musical theatre royalty – Maria Friedman, Jenna Russell, Clare Burt, Andrew C Wadsworth….. I loved the show and the following year I was on the Olivier Awards panel when it re-opened the Playhouse Theatre in London, substantially re-cast. I was expecting to lead the campaign to nominate it as Best Musical, but it was a different show and for some reason had nothing like the impact it had in Oldham. I’ve never entirely understood why.

It was 24 years before its second London outing, this time at Ye Olde Rose & Crown Theatre (in a room above a pub in Walthamstow), and it proved to be a delightful chamber piece. So here we are another three years on and it’s the third in the Union Theatre’s Howard Goodall Season, with a production whose musical standards may well be the best. It sounds gorgeous.

Set in the the second world war in the WAAF (Women’s Auxiliary Air Force), the ten ‘girlfriends’ are carrying out admin duties, parachute packing and tea making. We have just two airmen representing the RAF and one of them is caught in a love triangle with best friends Amy and Louise (the other one is trying hard to get laid). The former is toff Guy and the latter Welsh boy Gareth (co-incidence). Everything is told in song – there’s next to no dialogue – which often makes it feel more of a song cycle than a musical. The lack of a good book is its flaw (according to Goodall, Richard Curtis no less added to his research notes with ‘a rambling inventive script’) but the music is glorious.

The vocals here really are beautiful, in solos and ensembles with overlapping melodies. You don’t often here ten women’s voices in harmony and it’s a lovely sound, but the mens contributions, equally good vocals, provide some necessary colour and contrast. The accompaniment of two keyboards, winds and double bass under MD Freddie Tapner ( a professional debut!) is also excellent. The singers and players all do full justice to Goodall’s score and they look like they are having the time of their lives. Bronagh Lagan’s simple staging, with inventive movement and choreography by Iona Holland, suits the piece well. Nik Corall’s design focuses more on costumes than set and you know you’re in the forties by the girls hairdos alone!

It’s great to see this year’s Sondheim Student Performer Award winner Corrine Priest, who made an excellent contribution to the society’s ‘God’ revue, making such a terrific impression in the leading role like Amy, and Perry Lambert is an equally impressive the other leading lady Lou. Both of the boys, Tom Sterling and Michael Ress (a real Welshman, thankfully!), have exceptional voices and act brilliantly. There isn’t a weak link in this young, hugely talented cast.

Though I missed the first show because of my travels, this has been a fabulous Howard Goodall season, so I will end by placing my order for 2015…….Dear Sasha & Howard, the London premiere of Two Cities, please. Thank you. Love, Gareth.

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