by John Topping
published June 20, 2008
The Hired Man
now playing Off Broadway at 59E59 Theater A
through June 29
The Hired Man, based on the novel by Melvin Bragg (who wrote
the book, with music and lyrics by Howard Goodall), is the first offering of a traditional-style musical from Brits Off Broadway, the popular
and successful program of British imports that arrives each year at the 59E59 Theatre. Originally
London’s West End in 1984, it virtually disappeared without a trace until New Perspectives Theatre Company decided to revive it in a successful
tour through England. Possibly gaining inspiration from John Doyle’s pared-down, minimalist
direction of the recent Broadway productions of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd and Company, this is a big musical designed for a
huge cast with expensive production values – a la Les Miserables (and of that era) – that has been pared-down to an even bigger
extreme. The musical accompaniment is primarily a piano, with an occasional trumpet and violin, and
a large cast and chorus is taken on by the company of eight actors.
Based on the glowing reviews it received in England, and on having
seen it, I have reason to believe that it’s necessary to have read the book and/or to be of genuine British upbringing to appreciate The
Hired Man. It has a few
lovely songs and, if all you are there for is to pass a couple and a half hours listening to pleasant voices singing them, then you will find
it to be an enjoyable evening. The songs “Fade Away” and “Farewell Song” were the ones that
struck me as particularly beautiful and well-written and orchestrated. But by and large, it’s
rather a bore.
I would like to blame it on the fact that, going into an unfamiliar theatre, the elements had not yet coalesced for the talent
involved. The actors often crowd the stage, making one feel sorry that they are forced to play
under such cramped conditions. However, this is 59E59’s Stage A – the complex’s big house –
and in the recent Something You Did, for example, the space managed to look absolutely huge. The set for The Hired Man is self-contained, composed of three irregularly-shaped blocks of what
looks like some kind of granite, interconnected on three levels of playing areas. Whatever
it’s made of, it’s quite solid, as demonstrated by one of the actors who repeatedly and rhythmically pounds it with a shovel in a work song
(and probing nightmarish images of the difficulty that will be involved the day the final strike of the set happens).
The story concerns John Tallentire, who gains farm work in the town of Crossbridge in the late 1800s in Cumbria. He is joined by his wife Emily, who promptly becomes the obsession of Jackson, the landowner’s son who
schemes to find time to seduce her without interference from John. She resists dutifully, as a
woman of the times was so obligated, but she is restless with her life, as is Jackson, and they see in each other an opportunity for some
temporary escape from the drudgery. Although they flirt and make their mutual attraction
obvious, it is never clear whether or not they actually have sexual intercourse.
Act II becomes very confusing when actors double-up on roles, time hurls forward and the backdrop becomes World War I followed by
a mining disaster. This is where reading the novel would have come in particularly handy (not
to mention having a full cast with a big chorus and a complete orchestra), not just to know what is going on but why it’s
important to the story. Jackson, who was by far the most interesting character of Act I,
appears little and then dies. John and Emily now have grown kids, and whether the older
daughter is supposed to have been fathered by Jackson is unclear and unexplored.
A sense of time and place from scene to scene is sorely missing, and added to the disorientation are difficult-to-decipher accents
or any clear differentiation when an actor is now playing a different character. Fortunately,
however, the press packet included the full text, so I was able to go back and see what had left me hopelessly lost. It turns out that the book is largely to blame, and even a lavish production probably would not
compensate for the jumps in time and place as it desperately tries to cover all the territory in the novel, and this is a big clue as to
why you’ve never heard of this musical before.
By the end, Emily and John fall in love all over again – or for the first time – and it was surprisingly touching reading
it. But it nonetheless has the fatal flaw that brings down many a play: not having any emotional connection to any of the characters, which is no fault of the actors or
director. Then, out of nowhere, Emily becomes sick and dies. For John to have just found her, so to speak, after a lifetime of living together, should be
devastating. But instead it is merely a neutral turn of events as we wait for the whole thing
to end. The last line of this review must be credited to my colleague Harvey Perr, who saw it
with me: some plays are best left undiscovered.
johntopping @ stageandcinema.com