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The Hired Man

Poster for "The Hired Man"

Book and Lyrics by Melvyn Bragg, based on his novel : Music by Howard Goodall

Produced at the Astoria Theatre, London 1984 (164 perfs)
47th Street Off Broadway - 10 November, 1988 (33 perfs)


Based on Melvyn Bragg's stirring novel of Cumbrian rural and industrial working life, set in the first quarter of the twentieth century, The Hired Man tells the story of one family's - Bragg's grandparents' -journey from land labourers to colliers and back to the land. Set against the background of working class ritual-whippet racing, hiring fairs, hunting, drinking bouts, union meetings-the musical brings alive that cavalcade of British history which swept us into a new century and a war to end all wars. Howard Goodall's superb score is strong in the British choral tradition-a marvellous succession of chorales, operatic duets and vigorous foot-stomping rhythms.


Omitting the customary overture, the show plunges straight into the first scene. The stage is full of movement and snatches of dialogue, as labourers and farmers bargain over wages. John Tallentire meets his two brothers, Isaac and Seth. Seth works down the coal mines, Isaac avoids work when he can.

The three brothers adjourn to the pub. Newly married, John has taken a job as a farm labourer in nearby Crossbridge. His wife, Emily, who is pregnant, joins him.

A keen betting man, Isaac issues a general challenge to a wrestling match. Jackson Pennington, son of the farmer who has just hired John, accepts the challenge. He is defeated, but Emily at least has obviously been impressed.

At Crossbridge the labourers work the hard ground. John enjoys his work. But Emily, who has given birth to a daughter, May, tells her new-found friend Sally she is dissatisfied with the life. Jackson approaches. Sally is under his spell, but it is Emily that Jackson wants.

With Emily's agreement, Isaac persuades John to go fox-hunting with him. John decides to stay away for the night. It is Jackson who delivers the message to Emily.

The temptation is too much for her. The next day John returns. The distance between the married couple is growing.

Abandoning hope of getting Emily for himself alone, Jackson joins the army, hoping to go to India. As he is saying farewell to his old cronies at the pub he receives a whispered message. He waits outside the pub. We find out who the message was from when Emily arrives. She is distraught at him leaving without telling her.

Inside the pub the men are gossiping and John suddenly realizes what has been going on. He catches his wife with Jackson. There is a fight, and Jackson is beaten, while Emily stands by torn between the two men.

For act two the year shifts forward from 1898 to 1914. May, now 16, is on a day trip to Cambridge. She plays on the hill with her younger brother, Harry. Harry runs off, excited by the sound of a gun firing. May removes some of her clothing and basks in the sunshine.

Jackson enters with a gun. He is home on leave and has been doing some shooting. In the conversation which follows, we learn the Tallentires are now living in Whitehaven, where John has joined his brother Seth down the pit. Jackson asks wistfully after Emily.

The scene moves to the Tallentires' house in Whitehaven. Emily has taken a job in a factory, which doesn't please her husband. Harry wants to go down the pit like his father, but Emily will not hear of it. It turns out headstrong Harry has gone behind his parents' backs and signed on at the mine anyway. Seth is now a force in the miners' union. He is trying to get all the men to join, but some are opposed. The meeting ends in a fight.

War breaks out, and John volunteers for the army. The patriotic soldiers soon discover the grim realities of trench warfare. Isaac loses a leg, but Jackson saves his life. Back home, Isaac tells Emily that Jackson wanted to be remembered to her. The rumour is he is now dead. Harry signs up. Tragically, he too is killed at the front.

The war over; we move forward to 1920. Isaac is now married. Seth has become a pacifist. For old times sake, John and Emily return to Crossbridge for an outing to the Friendly Society Annual Day. Emily, who is now not well, suggests that they should return to the land. Both have regrets over what has happened in the past but their love has survived.

In a pit accident John and two friends are cut off by a roof fall. Seth and the others succeed in their rescue attempt, but John returns home to find that Emily has died. Finally he makes up his mind to do as Emily wanted and return to the land. The story ends as it began, with John seeking work as a hired man.

Musical Numbers:

Crossbridge Dance
Fade Away
Farewell Song
Fill It To the Top
Get Up and Go Lad
Hear Your Voice
I Wouldn't Be the First
If I Could
It's All Right For You
Men Of Stone
No Choir of Angels
Now For the First Time
The Song of the HIred Man
War Song
So Tell You Children
What A Fool I've Been
What Would You Say To Your Son?
Who Will You Marry Then?
Work Song
You Never See the Sun

The Cast:

M 19 F5. Extras. Doubling possible

The Scenes

Various simple settings on an open stage


Bass, Trumpet, Harpsichord, Harp


Original London Cast - Polydor POLH-18 | First Night SCENE 10