THE HIRED MAN
The Mercury, Colchester
Melvyn Bragg's beloved Cumbrian fells form the arena for this epic tale, a stage version of his Tallentire trilogy.
Juliet Shillingford's stunning design at the Mercury has massive slate slabs for actors and musicians, surrounded by a misty suggestion of the distant hills, dominated later by the pits and factories that will lure the men from the farms.
The simplicity of the setting points up the strength of the story, which begins when John [a searingly honest performance from David Hunter] joins the other lads to ply for hire, as farmers recruit for the "war with the land". In half a dozen scenes and two dozen songs, we follow the family through troubles, turmoil and the tragedy of war. John's Emily [poignantly acted and superbly sung by Julie Atherton] struggles with loss and illicit love as her menfolk risk their lives in the trenches and the mines.
The thirteen actor musicians – there's fiddle, trumpet and recorders as well as the piano and harp trio – give wonderfully committed performances in large roles and small: the recruiting sergeant, the farmers in the pub, brothers Isaac and Seth, the idealist dreamer. Kit Orton is a powerful presence as Jackson, Emily's secret lover, and the next generation, May and Harry, are given lively, rounded characterizations by Jill Cardo and Jamie Barnard.
As well as the sweeping saga of this very English family story, there is Howard Goodall's music, folk-inspired, stirring and tender by turns, it arises naturally from the dialogue and adds another dimension to an already stunning show. Day Follows Day, a later addition to the 1984 score, was especially memorable, as was Get Up and Go Lad, with its energetic choreography. Richard Reeday, like director Daniel Buckroyd no stranger to this show, is the MD at the onstage upright.
Buckroyd's direction asks a lot of his company, in this, his first major show for the Mercury. They've certainly come up with the goods – a dazzling ensemble in a solid gold revival of this seminal show. It plays the Mercury until 6 April, then transfers to the Curve in Leicester.