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Posts Tagged ‘The Hired Man’

This is a musical theatre debut by Gus Gowland, who is responsible for the book, music and lyrics. I can’t think of a more auspicious British musical premiere since Howard Goodall’s The Hired Man over thirty years ago.

It’s a very cleverly structured piece which takes you a short while to unravel, juxtaposing a contemporary gay relationship with a wartime one, where one party is the grandson of another. Newly married Edward is conscripted and at the war front fellow serviceman Tom offers to teach him to dance so that he can sweep his wife Anna off her feet on his return home. A seemingly hopeless relationship soon develops.

Many years later, at Edward’s funeral, we meet his only daughter Jane, who disapproves of her son (Edward’s grandson) Ed’s homosexuality and boyfriend Harry. Ed’s younger sister thinks it’s normal, even cool – a change in just one generation. A stranger, Rose, arrives with a box of memories, we learn she is Tom’s sister and the story is pieced together and we understand the significance of the title.

The score is lovely, with delicate solos and duets and more rousing ensemble pieces like Standing in the Shadows, which sees all four men across time in unison and melodies return and interweave. Perhaps because he wrote both, the book and lyrics are seamless, jointly propelling the story. There’s an organic flow between scenes in a very fluid staging by Ryan McBryde, with a cleverly effective design from newcomer Fin Redshaw. Paul Herbert’s ensemble of piano, cello and reeds makes a beautiful, delicate accompaniment.

It’s strongly cast, with Craig Mather & Joel Harper-Jackson as wartime lovers Edward and Tom and Andy Coxon & Gary Wood as contemporary Ed & Harry. Carol Starks brilliantly conveys the cold, emotionless Jane literally in the middle of it all, with Ella Dunlop excellent as Ed’s feisty sister Gemma. I very much liked Lauren Hall, who has to switch from doting newlywed to heartbroken wife, and there’s a lovely cameo from Marilynn Cutts as the older Rose.

I can’t believe for one minute that this premiere production in Colchester will be its last. Gold stars to the Mercury, Perfect Pitch and TBO Productions for developing it.

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I’ve been listening to Sting’s CD of music from this show for five years, waiting for a UK production. Mystifyingly, it premiered in the US in 2014, trying out in Chicago before opening on Broadway. It’s so quintessentially British, I just can’t imagine it on Broadway. This new production, with a new book, opened where it belongs in Newcastle and is now touring the UK. I caught it in Northampton and for me it’s up there with other great British musicals like The Hired Man and Billy Elliott, with a score that’s as good as the former and better than the latter.

Like Billy, it places a personal story alongside recent social history. Teenage Gideon goes off to sea, seeking a better life than the shipyards of Wallsend can provide, leaving more than his girlfriend Meg behind. He returns seventeen years later to sort out his late dad’s house and tries to reconnect with Meg, now a thirty-something business-woman and single mother. In the shipyard, the ship they’re about to finish hasn’t been sold and is instead to be dismantled, and the shipyard closed. This is Thatcher’s Britain. The workers are having none of it and led by foreman Jackie and Shop Steward Billy, with support from the townswomen, led by Jackie’s wife Peggy, they take risky and defiant action.

Sting’s score and lyrics are terrific, and the new book by director Lorne Campbell is excellent, not afraid to wear it’s heart on its sleeve and concluding with a rousing political rallying call. I loved Rob Mathes folky orchestrations which Richard John’s band played beautifully. The design by 59 Productions is stunning, with projections creating the ship and shipyard, terraced rows, street scenes and interiors of houses and the pub. The final scene takes your breathe away. Even the choreography of Lucy Hind has a foot-stomping folk aesthetic and an edginess about it. Campbell’s superb production has Geordie blood running all the way through it.

Richard Fleeshman is excellent as the returning older Gideon and Frances McNamee sensational as feisty older Meg. Joe McGann and Charlie Hardwick make a lovely loving couple as Jackie and Peggy. Katie Moore is great too as Meg’s equally feisty teenage daughter Ellie and Joe Caffrey, not the only cast member to have done a turn in Billy Elliott, is a very passionate Billy. It’s clearly a very committed ensemble and I loved their banter with the audience before each act.

A great British musical which I hope I will see again in London, a transfer it so richly deserves, but you’d be wise to see it on tour, just in case!

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National Youth Music Theatre UK have been extraordinarily ambitious in recent years – two new shows, The Battle of Boat and Brass, Howard Goodall’s The Dreaming & The Hired Man, Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd and now this second Sondheim, which may well be the biggest mountain they’ve chosen to climb; it’s difficulty may be why it has only been revived twice (Leicester Haymarket and Menier to West End to Broadway) since it’s NT UK premiere 27 years ago. To say they have risen to the challenge would be an understatement. There were times when I could hardly believe what I was seeing and hearing from an amateur company and the song Sunday has been on permanent loop in my head since I left the theatre.

The only musical based on a painting is in two very different parts. In the first, Georges Seurat is painting on the Island of La Grande Jatte in the River Seine in Paris, where we are introduced to his muse Dot, his mother and her nurse and the other characters in the famous painting now in the Art Institute of Chicago – including shop girls, soldiers, an American couple, another artist, a baker and a boatman. In the second half we zip forward to contemporary times, to the gallery where the painting resides, where Seurat’s grandson George is unveiling his new work with his grandmother, the daughter of Seurat’s muse, in attendance. I consider it Sondheim’s most challenging piece.

The very effective design consists of a picture frame backdrop and nine easels, with excellent period costumes. In the first half, the easels contain canvas sketches of parts of the picture and in the second half they become the illuminated modern work. It’s a small space which sometimes feels a touch cramped but the staging is very good. Sunday, which ends the first half, was staged and performed with such delicacy, restraint and beauty it quite took my breath away. The contemporary gallery scene somehow felt more effective than I remember it being staged before. The segue from Move On into the reprise of Sunday at the end was an uplifting emotional wave.

After a tentative start, the band played beautifully. The ensemble was outstanding, and the two leads – Thomas Josling as Georges / George and Laura Barnard as Dot / Marie – were simply sensational. Two stars are born, I’d say.

Great to see it again after a ten year famine, and great to report that the future of musical theatre in Britain is safe in these hands. The audience, quite rightly, erupted.

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Best New Play(s) – The James Plays

First up its plays, new ones, and when I counted I was surprised to find I’d seen 75 of them, including a pleasing half-dozen at the NT. My long list only brought that down to 31 so I had to be real hard to get to the Top Ten short-list of Versailles at the Donmar, Good People & Wonderland at Hampstead, Wet House at Soho, The Visitors at the Arcola (now at the Bush), 1927’s Golem at the Young Vic and 3 Winters & The James Plays from the National Theatre of Scotland at the NT – a three-play feast which pipped the others at the post.

Best Revival (Play) – shared by Accolade and My Night With Reg

I saw fewer revivals – a mere 44! – but 18 were there at the final cut. The Young Vic had a stonking year with Happy Days, A Streetcar Named Desire & A View From a Bridge, the latter two getting into my top ten with the Old Vic’s The Crucible, the Open Air’s All My Sons (that’s no less than 3 Millers) the NT’s Medea, Fathers & Sons at the Donmar, True West at the Tricycle and the Trafalgar Transformed Richard III. In the end I copped out, unable to choose between My Night with Reg at the Donmar and Accolade at the St James.

Best New Musical – Made in Dagenham

I was a bit taken aback at the total of 25 new musicals, 10 of which got through the first round, including the ill-fated I Can’t Sing, Superman in Walthamstow (coming soon to Leicester Square Theatre) , In the Heights at Southwark and London Theatre Workshop’s Apartment 40C. I struggled to get to one from the six remaining, which included the NT’s Here Lies Love and five I saw twice – Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Dogfight at Southwark, Hampstead’s Kinkfest Sunny Afternoon and Dessa Rose at Trafalgar Studio Two – but eventually I settled on a great new British musical Made in Dagenham.

Best Revival (Musical) – Sweeney Todd in Harrington’s Pie Shop, Tooting

An extraordinary year for musical revivals with 38 to choose from and 22 serious contenders including 7 outside London (two of which I short-listed – Hairspray in Leicester and Gypsy in Chichester) and not one but two Sweeney Tood’s! Difficult not to choose Damn Yankees at the Landor, a lovely Love Story at the Union, more Goodall with the NYMT’s The Hired Man at St James Theatre, Blues in the Night at Hackney, Sweeney Todd at the ill-fated Twickenham Theatre and Assassins at the Menier, plus the Arcola’s Carousel which was so good I went twice in its short run. In the end though, expecting and accepting accusations of bias, I have to go for the other Sweeney Todd in Harrington”s Pie Shop here in Tooting – funnier & scarier, beautifully sung & played and in the perfect location, bringing Sondheim to Tooting – in person too!

Best Out of Town – National Theatre Wales’ Mametz

I have to recognise my out-of-town theatregoing, where great theatre happens too, and some things start out (or end up!). The best this year included a superb revival of a recent Broadway / West End show, Hairspray at Leicester Curve, and one on the way in from Chichester, Gypsy, which I will have to see again when it arrives……. but my winner was National Theatre of Wales’ extraordinary Mametz, taking us back to a World War I battle, in the woods near Usk, in this centenary year.

Best Site Specific Theatre – Symphony of a Missing Room (LIFT 2014)

Finally, a site specific theatre award – just because I love them and because it’s my list, so I can invent any categories I like! Two of the foregoing winners – Sweeney Todd and Mametz – fall into this category but are  now ineligible. The two other finalists were I Do, a wedding in the Hilton Docklands, and Symphony of a Missing Room, a blindfolded walk through the Royal Academy buildings as part of LIFT, which piped the other at the post.

With some multiple visits, 2014 saw around 200 visits to the theatre, which no other city in the world could offer. As my theatrical man of the year Stephen Sondheim put it in the musical revival of the year – There’s No Place Like London.

 

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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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I’ve always been puzzled by the critical indifference to Howard Goodall’s musicals. For me, in the (short) list of great British composers of musicals he comes top and his first show, the Hired Man, sits with Les Miserables and West Side Story as one of my favourite musical scores.

Even though he has a very distinctive sound, which is distinctively British, it changes subtly to suit the subject matter. Only three of his nine musicals have been produced in the West End. 25 years ago, The Hired Man lost the Olivier Award to the highly unoriginal 42nd Street (leading lady ill, chorus girl’s big break, yawn…yawn…), soon after Girlfriends closed very quickly (though in fairness, the production didn’t live up to the Bolton premiere) and then we had to wait 24 years for Love Story, one of the best chamber musicals ever, which also got an undeserved early bath.

The Hired Man gets revived on a small scale fairly frequently, Days Of Hope (a lovely show set in the Spanish Civil War) occasionally but the 2nd World War Girlfriends, as far as I know, has never been revived. Two Cities (based on Dickens) was only seen outside London and the other four, like this one, were written for youth groups. Only The Hired Man and Days of Hope have ever been recorded, so you can’t even listen to the music to find out what you’re missing!

I fondly remember seeing the NYMT production of this 12 years ago (with recent Olivier Award winning Sheridan Smith in the cast) at the Lyric Hammersmith and its astonishing that it has taken so long to be revived and to get its professional debut. We’re awash with fringe productions of musicals, but none of them are British. I yearn to see Lionel Bart’s Blitz! or Maggie May or Goodall’s Girlfriends. OK, end of rant and on with the review!

There can’t be many musicals based on restoration comedies like this one based on Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer. Moving it to the Edwardian period works; otherwise its faithful to the play and thanks to Charles Hart’s witty book and lyrics, even funnier. Goodall’s score is rich in lovely tunes and even more varied in style than most of his scores. It takes a little while to take off, but it proves to be a delight. It would have been even better to see it in a bigger space with better sight lines than the cramped and stuffy Jermyn Street Theatre.

Director Lotte Wakeham, who first impressed me with Austentatious at the Landor, has done a superb job on a simple set by Samal Blak (who worked wonders transforming the Cock Tavern for Pins & Needles) with elegant period costumes by Karen Frances. It’s partially in actor-musician mode, but Harriet Oughton at the piano has the primary musical responsibility and manages a bit of acting as well as playing the whole score!

Beverley Klein gives us another delicious musical comedy masterclass as Mrs Hardcastle. Ian Virgo (also in the original production, but as Lumpkin), Gina Beck, Dylan Turner and Gemma Sutton as the two couples at the heart of the story all act well and do full justice to Goodall’s music. It took me a while to warm to Jack Shalloo as Lumpkin (probably because I couldn’t get his terrific turn in Departure Lounge out of my head!) but he won me over.

A standing ovation for producers Peter Huntley and Charlotte Staynings for giving us this long-awaited opportunity to re-visit the show and for doing such a cracking job with it. Girlfriends? Blitz? Please!

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A day trip to sunny Chichester. Laughter and tears – the perfect combination. Bliss!

Yes, Prime Minister has been updated – VERY updated, with references to coalitions and hung parliaments – by writers Anthony Jay and Jonathan Lynn (who also directs), but retains much of what made the TV series one of the very best comedies ever to grace our screens. The references may now be climate change, economic crises and the euro, but the intrigue and manipulations are just the same and Sir Humphrey’s soliloquies are masterpieces of verbose obfuscation!

Britain holds the presidency of the EU during a climate change summit and is close to brokering a deal when the Kumranistan foreign secretary makes personal demands that are morally difficult for the British to concede. On stage it’s rather broader and closer to farce than the knowingness and subtlety on TV, probably because the medium (and particularly a big theatre) requires this. However, it survives and provides lots of politically incorrect laughs.

David Haig, Henry Goodman and Jonathan Slinger make the characters of PM Jim Hacker, Sir Humphrey and Bernard their own. The ‘Special Advisor’ is more prominent (as she should be in 2010) and the appearance of the BBC DG facilitates a whole bucketful of cheeky satirical swipes at the organisation which gave us the TV series in the first place. 

I’ll be surprised if this isn’t in the West End before the summer’s out. Great fun!

I must be one of the few people who never saw the film (or read the book) of Love Story but it seems to me it could have originated as a musical, so comfortable is the story framed in this new show from Howard Goodall and Stephen Clark . Goodall’s music is simply gorgeous, his best score since The Hired Man, and Clark’s book and lyrics convey the all too short love with an intensity and humour that moved me from laughter to tears but ultimately left me uplifted. Goodall’s own orchestrations for piano, acoustic guitar and string quintet are beautiful and singing is crystal clear.

Rachel Kavanaugh directs with a deftness and elegance on a simple white set. With the audience on three sides, there are occasions when your sight lines and audibility are challenged, but not enough to damage your enjoyment.

Emma Williams and Michel Xavier are excellent as the young couple. Williams, in particular, delivers her self-deprecating New York humour wittily and believably. The rest of the small cast of ten give very good support in a variety of roles and as a chorus.

This was a glorious 100 minutes. I can’t wait to hear the music again. If there’s any justice, it won’t end its life in Chichester and wherever it goes, I’ll be following.

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