Reviews of The Hired Man

  • Posted on 1 April 2008 at 4:16pm
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This page contains reviews of many of the productions of The Hired Man:

Original West End Production, London…

“Howard Goodall’s score is one of the finest I have heard in a British musical in years it has its own cumulative choral virility and the ability, in a simple duet about marital survival, to penetrate one’s emotional defences… It has a real sense of social breadth and captures the ancestral pull of the land.” Michael Billington, The Guardian

“The real drama lies in Goodalls music: his lean, unfussy scoring and his rousing choral ballads. He writes recognisably English and pungently individual music” John Peter, Sunday Times

“At his first attempt Howard Goodall has smashed the British musical mould; hewing his musical line from Britain’s choral traditions with an audacity that is at once thrilling and fearful, Goodall’s lyrics and haunting themes are left to fill up the mind with a simplicity that is as rare as it is effective… you will seldom hear voices used with such stirring beauty.” Carole Woods, City Limits

The Hired Man is an engagingly different kind of musical a marvellous succession of chorales, operatic duets and vigorous foot-stomping rhythms – an altogether thoroughly vital score by Howard Goodall. All the choral writing is tremendous” Michael Coveney, Financial Times

“The best musical of the year: Goodall’s music runs under dialogue, through scenes, across decades: it’s there down the mines and at the hiring fairs and the wrestling matches in this Cavalcade of early twentieth-century English life, and the show which has been built around the music is unbeatable and unmissable.” Sheridan Morley, Punch 

The Hired Man… is a marvellous, bracing, moving creation” Steve Grant, Time Out


2007-2008 New Perspectives UK Tour

The Sunday Express 25th November 07 : Mark Shenton

The Hired Man premiered in 1984 but is only now receiving its firstUK tour by the enterprising Nottingham-based New Perspectives, who take their shows to theatres and village halls around the country. They live up to their name, offering a dramatic, beautifully pared-down new perspective on this kaleidoscopic musical view of English rural farming and mining life from the turn of the 20th century.

Howard Goodall, best known for his theme tunes to shows like Blackadder, Mr Bean and The Vicar Of Dibley, and as a presenter of several TV series on music, furnishes it with what I consider to be the greatest score of any English musical of the past 25 years. In fact, when I was a guest on Elaine Paige’s Radio 2 Sunday afternoon show a couple of months ago, I selected this as one of my five essential musicals. It is a sound, at once distinctive and hugely melodic, that is drenched in English choral and folk music traditions and pulses with yearning and feeling. Its moving story, based on Melvyn Bragg’s 1969 novel of the same name, follows the lives of John and Emily Tallentire as they make a life together and as played with real heart here by Richard Colvin and Claire Sundin, their connection both with each other and with the audience is palpable.

The show may drift into melodrama at times, but it is always rescued by the tug of emotion that underpins it. Watching Daniel Buckroyd’s production through a veil of tears, I was even distracted from the draughty chill of the Swan Theatre inWorcesterin which I saw it.’

The Independent 1st October 07: Jenny Hulme

If you’ve read The Hired Man you might sympathise with Melvyn Bragg’s initial astonishment that composer Howard Goodall wanted to create a musical out of “the working-class heroic struggle” portrayed in his book, set in Cumbria in the early 1900s. But Bragg claimed to have been quickly convinced by the result (as were critics in the Eighties when it opened). And anyone at Nottingham’s Lakeside Arts Centre this week to catch the first national tour of the musical will have seen why. The Hired Man might not have had the run it deserved in the West End, but it has an enduring appeal. Bragg and Goodall put this down to its subject matter, believing it simply strikes a chord with its audiences by touching on relationships strained by work, families torn apart by war and other life issues that still make the headlines 100 years on from when John – the hired man of the title – first set out to find work in 1898. But there’s more to it than that. A lot of the magic comes from a brilliant musical score and wonderful characterisation by the cast of actors/singers (Simon Pontin, Jackson here, surely has a leading West End role round the corner). They seemed totally committed to capturing the changing and challenged expectations, dreams, passions and pain of a family dealing with the stuff that life throws at them. Director Daniel Buckroyd, who has picked up great reviews for his previous touring productions with New Perspectives, uses a smaller cast than originally planned by Goodall and Bragg, so they work hard. But they also work wonderfully together and, with the help of clever lighting and a simple set, lead the audience seamlessly from the Cumbrian hiring fair to the local bar, from misty fells to the trenches in First World War France, from a family’s tea table to the depths of a collapsed mine shaft. There were a couple of scenes when apparent efforts to condense the tale seemed abrupt and confusing – the sexual tension between Emily and Jackson that made such an impact on the storyline seemed underdeveloped, and Emily’s untimely end came as a surprise. Her illness was only hinted at in an earlier scene. But no matter. Like everyone else around me I was thoroughly moved from Act I, and close to tears by the time I got to “No Choir of Angels” towards the end of Act II. A wonderful production – better than many in theWest End. The provinces are in for a treat.

The Stage 1st October 07: Pat Ashworth

It dares us to feel pity but commands us to feel respect. What a stroke of genius to send Melvyn Bragg’s robust and unsentimental depiction of rural struggle out on tour, into village communities where some of the issues still resonate in a new age. Stuart Ward (Issac) and Richard Colvin (John) in The Hired Man at Lakeside Arts Centre, Nottingham Stuart Ward (Issac) and Richard Colvin (John) in The Hired Man at Lakeside Arts Centre, Nottingham Photo: Tristram Kenton This brilliant chamber production uses just eight actors to bring alive a whole era before, during and after the First World War, when working people in Cumbria grappled with the barrenness of the land and the harshness of the pits. From the hiring fair at Crossbridge to the mud of Passchendale, the men and women exhibit a resilience and dignity that really move. Howard Goodall’s lyrics are tough and impassioned, sometimes beaten out to the hitting of shovels in hard earth and sung throughout with intensity and fervour. The piano score is enhanced with trumpet and occasionally violin to deliver songs of great tenderness, such as Day Follows Day and What Would You Say to Your Son? Angry, monosyllabic protests such as War, sung in the nightmare of the trenches, are mitigated by gentler, comic lyrics – “He’s a nice enough lad but I’m scared of his dad”. The story, based on the life of Bragg’s grandfather, highlights the miners’ struggles for reform and the farm workers’ for a living wage. Every word counts and it’s impeccably delivered, much of it in chorus. There are fine performances all round, especially from Richard Colvin as John, Claire Sundin as Emily, Lee Foster as Harry and Katie Howell as May. It is simply awesome.

The Guardian 27th September 07: Alfred Hickling

There’s been much hand-wringing about where the next generation of British musicals is to come from. The Arts Council is so concerned about the glut of American shows that it has commissioned an inquiry to determine how fresh blood may be injected into a West Endwhose arteries have been hardened by years of glutinous Broadway product. It frequently goes unobserved that Howard Goodall has been plugging away for the past 20 years, quietly devising a distinctive form of musical theatre embedded in the choral and folk traditions of the English countryside. The Hired Man is adapted from Melvyn Bragg’s 1984 novel. Yet it is a measure of how undervalued Goodall’s work seems to be that it has never been presented in a touring version until now.

Set in the opening decades of the 20th century, the novel was written as a tribute to Bragg’s grandfather, a farm labourer and keen amateur musician. Like all his fiction, it is infused with the physical and emotional landscape of Cumbria. The story revolves around the seasonal lottery of hiring fairs, where an increasingly hungry population of agricultural workers apply for a dwindling pool of jobs. The action covers a vast amount of ground, from the outbreak of war to the development of the Labour movement; though East Midlandsrural touring company New Perspectives has successfully condensed this epic tale of the changing countryside into a chamber musical appropriate for a circuit of village halls. Daniel Buckroyd’s production features a versatile ensemble of actor-musicians and Juliet Shillingford’s simple set resourcefully suggests misty fells, precarious mine shafts and the shattered fields of France. It’s a pleasure to hear a musical heartily sung without amplification: musical director Richard Reeday pounds away at a piano rather unconvincingly disguised as a rock; and if some of the playing is scratchy, it hardly matters, as Goodall’s score is rooted in the simple cadences of village choirs and fireside music-making. Twenty years on, The Hired Man still offers a wholemeal alternative to sugary musicals and presents a lesson in how to produce an authentically English strain of music theatre, with a harmonic language closer to Delius or Vaughan Williams than Disney and Lloyd Webber. It will never conquer Broadway of course: but perhaps that’s no bad thing.

The Daily Telegraph 24th September 07: Dominic Cavendish

Although The Hired Man didn’t stay the course in theWest End in 1984, on the evidence of New Perspectives’s smart, pocket-sized revival, it has more than stood the test of time. An epic account of rural Cumbrian life from 1898 to 1920, Howard Goodall’s score has the undulating beauty of the landscape it describes, his lyrics the flinty humour of those who broke their backs keeping body and soul together. Not to be missed.

What’s on Stage 5th March 08: Gareth James

There have really only been two great British musicals on British themes in the last 25 years – Billy Elliott and the Hired Man; and this has the better score. It was a travesty when the originalWest Endproduction c.22 years ago lost out to the unoriginal Broadway tosh of42nd Street. Howard Goodall went on to write other good musicals like Girlfriends and Days of Hope, but this is undoubtedly his masterpiece. I’ve taken every opportunity to see revivals but there have been few, so I was thrilled to see this touring production make a brief call inGreenwich. I’d never heard of New Perspectives, but they now have a new fan. It works really well pared down to a cast of eight, two of which play instruments to supplement a hard working on-stage pianist / musical director who deserves considerable credit for the high musical standards. The impressive young cast, over half of which are LIPA graduates, are clearly committed to and absorbed by the storytelling and sing and play Godall’s uplifting and simply gorgeous folk / choral-inspired score with great enthusiasm. Anyone interested in musical theatre is probably en route toGreenwich; if not, you’ve only got a few days to catch this rare gem. I now have to write to Nicholas Hytner to ask him why musicals like this aren’t where they belong in the Cottesloe Theatre! (rating: *****)


New Perspectives Brits Off Broadway June 2008 Reviews

Round up of New Yorkcritics for the show can be found here, or individually:



The Guardian 9th September, 2003The Hired Man at Salisbury Playhouse Theatre: Lyn Gardner

A gleam often comes into the eyes of those who caught Howard Goodall and Melvyn Bragg’s musical of Cumbrian life on the land and down the mines before and after the first world war, during its brief West Endrun almost 20 years ago. Then they mutter something about it being a great lost British musical. Well, this rare professional revival, complete with a new song, proves them right. As English as Elgar, buttered toast, loamy soil and pelting rain, Goodall’s rich and gorgeously melodic score provides as sweeping an emotional landscape as the geographical features of the Lake District countryside where we follow the lives, loves and losses of one family over two generations. In the programme, Goodall suggests that the arrival of the blockbuster musical in the form of Les Misérables contributed to The Hired Man‘s failure. I’d hazard a guess that it might be more to do with the fact that Goodall and Bragg’s piece almost entirely lacks the kind of rousing feelgood factor that musical audiences so adore.

This is a show that, despite its bygone English rural setting, is without nostalgia or sentimentality. Despite the musical form it has a real robustness, as it tells of the hardness of ordinary people’s lives, whether it is driving a bargain in the hiring ring, eking out a living from the land or surviving the terrible conditions of the Whitehaven mines. Then if the pits don’t do for you, the first world war will, likely as not. The politics of survival are an intricate part of the mix, whether it is the emotional sacrifices of Emily, who gives up her one great love, or the struggles of the trade unions to get better conditions for the men. It may not send you out of the theatre on a high, but this is a genuine three-hankie theatrical experience, charting the inner lives and struggles of those who had plenty to weep about but managed to find small joys. Joanna Read’s beautifully acted and sung production is one of her very best; theWest Endwould be foolish to ignore it.

Off-Broadway Production directed by Brian Aschinger, New York 

The Hired Man has both heart and purpose. The music is robust, drawing strength from the land… quietly affecting… lyrical and liberating.” Mel Gussow, New York Times

“Imagine a folk opera based on a rural story by Thomas Hardy or DH Lawrence and you will have some idea of the power and magnitude of the achievement of The Hired Man…One of the best new book musicals to come along in a long time.” Victor Gluck, Backstage

“Inspiring… at the forefront of recent openings… every note and word resounds with integrity and intensity… Goodall’s ambitious score is both beautiful and distinctive.” Simon Saltzman, Daily Record

“A score of operatic breadth, with melodies that sound like hymns and English folk music, filtered through a theatrical sensibility.” Ken Mandelbaum, Theatre Week 

“The music is searing… vignettes that address both personal and global issues… that touch the heart and feed the spirit… There is nothing on Broadway to equal its simplicity.” FE Siegel, New York Tribune

Walnut Street Theatre Production, Philadelphia

“A serious work of music drama rich in choral harmonies and graced with a respect for life as ordinary people live it. Although the book is an absorbing narrative, the beauty of the show is Howard Goodall’s score which is touched with a truly lyrical imagination. Goodall has a gift for the distinctive musical phrase and… a craftsmanly skill in making a song point the way to the next development.” William Collins, Philadelphia Enquirer

“A not-to-be-missed theatrical event… a blockbuster musical that celebrates everyday life in operatic proportions. The Hired Man transports us back to a time of transition. A time when the traditions that burned deep in the hearts of men were tested by the inventions of man’s intellect… Goodall’s music is the fibre that holds everything together. He has a special gift for using music to reveal emotion in much the same way as a film director uses a close-up…” John Benigno, Delaware County News

“It’s a relief to see a musical that isn’t all spectacle and flash… Howard Goodall’s music is superb… songs like Work Song and War Song are especially powerful.” Michael Kownacky, Trenton Times

National Ballet of Flanders production, March-April 2001

The Hired Man: gripping portrayal of passion and strife. Mix of music and theatre finds perfect harmony’.

The Hired Man was given its Dutch-language première at the Theatre ‘t Eilandje in the presence of composer Howard Goodall. It was a gripping performance of a little-known but musically skilful and dramatically rich musical, cleverly presented by the musical department of the Ballet of Flanders. Director Jan Verbist and choreographer Martin Michel opted for strongly stylized action. The alternation of music and theatre puts across the passion and poignancy. Max Smeets leads a small but vigorous orchestra in a musical language, which, as musicals go, is highly original. The Ballet of Flanders proves once again that in the world of musicals there can be quality and not just kitsch.

(Eddie Vaes in de ‘Nieuwe Gazet’,27/01/2001)

The hired man sings sublimely. Moving performances by Jan Schepens and Janke Dekker Just as the murderess of Jan Schepens was being exposed in the VRT soap Thuis (Home), that self-same Jan was standing large as life on the stage of Theatre ‘t Eilandje at the première of The Hired Man, the new production of the musical department of the Royal Ballet of Flanders. Composer Howard Goodall was in the audience. And he saw that it was good. The Brit expressed his satisfaction afterwards. “One of the best versions I’ve seen so far”, he muttered. It could well be, of course, that he says the same thing wherever in the world his work is being performed. But we must admit that it was a very good performance. We enjoyed a beautiful spectacle, which never for a moment threatened to become banal and which was occasionally even moving. The drama that emanates from this epic is impressive. Director Jan Verbist succeeded in evoking the atmosphere of those days and with fairly simple means. A sparse décor are enough to create totally different situations in the space of a few seconds. The divine music did the rest. And of course there were the marvellous voices of Jan Schepens, probably one ofBelgium’s greatest musical talents, and Janke Dekker, who had little difficulty convincing everyone of her talent. We already knew what baritone Ernst Daniel Smid was capable of.

( Herman Van Doninck in ‘De Gazet van Antwerpen’, 27-28/01/2001)

Dutch première of The Hired Man. ‘Impassioned beauty’

( Jessica De Mulder, de ‘Bossche Omroep’,28/01/2001)

Simplicity becomes The Hired Man. Sometimes less is more. As the musical department of the Royal Ballet of Flanders shows with The Hired Man… The story provides scope for catchy ensemble numbers with compelling rhythms and a powerful choreography. Yet the more intimate work, in which Jan Schepens in particular excels, does not suffer as a result. He makes John a man of flesh and blood, vulnerable in his changeability. Ernst Daniël Smid is also first rate in a rather smaller role than we would expect of him. There are good supporting roles as well, for example that of Philip Bolluyt as comic pleasure-seeker, while the ensemble also does a fine job. Without much to-do and spectacle, The Hired Man tugs at the heart-strings.

( Marco Weijers in ‘De Telegraaf’,5/02/2001)

The Hired Man is the name of the new musical production by the Royal Ballet of Flanders premièred in Den Bosch yesterday. The public appeared unanimous afterwards: hard to understand that this wonderful show will only run for three months. The Hired Man is a little-known British show by composer Howard Goodall and writer Melvyn Bragg. The story goes that in the early eighties Goodall was tired of the musical, which had become increasingly bombastic, grotesque and clichéd. So he decided to make one of his own. The show was a success inLondon, arrived inNew York at the end of the eighties, but then – silence. Fortunately, the wilful musical department of the Royal Ballet of Flanders pulled the piece out from the back of the cupboard and dusted it off. The result is a subdued production, averse to overblown stage props and showy scenery, the music and songs are totally captivating and, believe it or not: it is about something. A dramatic story forms the leitmotif of this realistic and moving period piece. It is brought with tremendous energy and passion on a stage consisting of moving panels, with next to no props. The café is a back wall, the house is a kitchen table and that’s it. And nothing more is needed. The stage is so versatile that – with the help of slick lighting – even a collapsed mine or a pitched battle is plausible. With The Hired Man, the Royal Ballet of Flanders, which last year took Sondheim (including the less successful Company) into its repertoire, shows that musicals can be more than an all-in company outing. The artistic choice of this production deserves respect and full auditoria. Lovers of better work, go and see it and quickly……”

( René van der Velden in ‘Brabants Dagblad/De Stem’,5/02/2001)

The Hired Man is about a woman (Janke Dekker) in a village in the north ofEngland, who finds it difficult to choose between the adventure of an extramarital love affair (Ernst Daniel Smid) and the security of her family and society. Set around the year 1900, this love story unfurls against the background of an agrarian way of life versus the complex industralized society. The first half spends too long bogged down in the love story with tunes that are rather too artless. But when Jan Schepens as the deceived husband gives as good as he gets in the sparkling number “Wat ben ik dwaas geweest” (How foolish I have been), the whole production gathers momentum nicely. The suffering of the First World War, both on the battlefield and among those who stayed at home, is portrayed very simply and effectively. A little smoke, an ingenious stage set that can be moved apart and magnificent lighting are enough. The three lead roles are interpreted extremely well. Janke Dekker in particular makes the evening a success. No fault can be found with her singing, as we know, but as an actress, too, she provides a top-notch performance. She reconciles herself with the lot of a woman who is beaten, without becoming pitiful.

The Hired Man took some hard knocks in its première year 1984. That was the year the Broadway success 42nd Street arrived in London and scored better than Goodall and Bragg’s musical, especially in terms of publicity. Now not only does the same scenario threaten to repeat itself – Joop van den Ende has included 42nd Street in the repertoire – but the Royal Ballet of Flanders is still suffering the negative aftermath of the Sondheim musical Company. Last season that production attracted only an average two-third capacity and that made the theatre directors wary about signing up on a large scale for The Hired Man. Yet Linda Lepomme, Artistic Director of the Royal Ballet of Flanders, sees no reason whatsoever to be driven off her wilful course. She believes it is the duty of a subsidized company not to rely on repertoire, which has proved so commercial. The concert version of Sondheim’s Follies is just behind them, and his A little night music has again been programmed for next season. The Hired Man fits nicely into that row of experiments, which the Dutch-speaking musical public can be happy with.

( Patrick van den Hanenberg in ‘De Volkskrant’,2/02/2001)

‘Musical about real people’

(Mirjam Keunen in the ‘Algemeen Dagblad’,3/02/2001)

Life as a never-ending struggle The Hired Man is social realism that takes the exploitation of the working classes, the rise of the workers’ movement and the insanity of war as the framework for a three-cornered relationship. Consciousness-raising theatre almost, but presented in a very tasteful and professional manner. The musical department of the Royal Ballet of Flanders is well able to stage a worthy Dutch-language version of The Hired Man. In the production by the darling of Flanders Jan Verbist (Samson & Gert, Kabouter Plop and recently Pinokkio), dramatic austerity and the grand gesture go hand in hand and make good partners. This coupled with an ingenious minimal set by Hartwig Dobbertin and an excellent choreography by the Australian Martin Michel (also involved in the Dutch Miss Saigon), results in an impressive production.

(Coos Versteeg in ‘De Haagse Courant’,05/02/2001)

Website Reviews:

After the family musicals Assepoester (Cinderella) and Pinokkio (Pinocchio), director Jan Verbist had the very difficult task of staging this production. Difficult partly because the Royal Ballet of Flanders cannot fall back on big sets and often has to rely on suggestions. The décor consists of a number of tilting parts in a sloping plane. These represent a hillside, trenches, the mines and the like. A nice idea… The Hired Man is the best of what the Ballet has staged in recent years. For those who still have their doubts: Howard Goodall may not like musicals, but he knows better than anyone how to write the music for them.

Review on the ‘Musical Fan’ website,29/01/2001

A cheerful musical it is not, but what’s wrong with that for a change! Howard Goodall’s music was pleasing to the ear. As well as a few fine songs, there are impressive ensembles and when the lyric takes precedence the music restricts itself to a piano or a discrete orchestral accompaniment. The performance we attended was enjoyable, not least because of the superb diction of all the soloists and their convincing portrayal of the characters…The small orchestral ensemble responded well under the animated leadership of Max Smeets. Jan Verbist’s production was smooth and succeeded in creating just the right atmosphere: one moment it was poignant, the next cheerful. As always with the musical productions of the Ballet of Flanders, the austerity of the set was almost Spartan. The audience expressed its approval of the show and there was also loud applause for Howard Goodall, who had come over fromEnglandspecially for the performance.

Review on ‘De Operagazet’ website,29/01/2001

Under the approving eye of the composer himself, the musical department of the Royal Ballet of Flanders came up with a première yesterday that was indeed ‘a first’. For the first time the English The Hired Man was staged in a language other than English. Expectations were running high. The cast spoke for itself: Jan Schepens, Janke Dekker, Ernst Daniel Smid, Maike Boerdam, Filip Bolluyt, Kirsten Cools, Stefan Hamblok, et al: each and every one of them artists who had already proved something on the musical stage. Add to that the experienced team of Jan Verbist as director, Max Smeets as musical director and Martin Michel as choreographer. Something big had to come of it and hopefully something positive too… ..

The Hired Man is a moving love story cum powerful social drama. The struggle for justice and against injustice is often intensely exposed. This alternates with a story of ardent love, which eventually results in a veritable three-cornered relationship. Now and then a deathly silence falls, underlining the emotionally charged moments so much that the spectator is carried away by the music and the story, which towards the end reaches a climax of pure drama. A happy ending it is not, but given the gripping events that have gone before, that would hardly have been realistic. The acting of the majority of the cast was pretty good. The audience cries genuine tears at regular intervals. Filip Bolluyt certainly deserves a special mention for his strong portrayal of Isaac… …I am confident the general public will enjoy this production. Powerfully emotional moments alternate with explosive, pugnacious scenes. Those expecting a typically English show will be disappointed. The Ballet of Flanders proved courageous enough not to take over the successful English production indiscriminately. Everything was changed and the result is intensely beautiful and compelling. As the composer Howard Goodall said with sincerity afterwards: “At last the piece has been played as I had in my mind’s eye when I composed it”. He could not have paid a nicer compliment. Review on ‘De Showbizzsite’ (website),29/01/2001