The Musical Youth Company of Oxford has a reputation for producing theatre of high quality but having seen The Hired Man at Headington Theatre I can report that its reputation is well founded because this is musical theatre at its very best.
The Hired Man is set in a community in Cumbria at the turn of the century where the men seek work in the fields to support their families. Soon the mining of coal replaces agriculture as the main source of employment, but it is the outbreak of the Great War in 1914 that tears into the very heart of the people.
Starting as it means to go on, a rousing opening number is belted out by the huge ensemble of talented young people, with a strength and diction normally reserved for West End productions. The cast takes on the fabulous score and its difficult harmonies with apparent ease, a huge credit to musical director Julie Todd. They were matched by remarkable performances from the leads. Johny Allison as John added an emotional depth to his character, impressive for someone so young. John’s pals Ben Platt and Oscar Pratley’s powerful voices were perfect, as was Maddie Pirrie as Sally.
Alek Auton and Lucas Lluna as John’s children May and Harry were fine comedy actors and the kitchen table scene was a fantastic glimpse of family life in the early 1900’s. For me however, the star of the show was Saffi Needham playing Emily. Saffi has a phenomenal voice and acting ability, bringing me close to tears! Her duet with Finley Pratley (Jackson) was another highlight and both of these young stars have a promisting future on the stage.
Director Ed Blagrove will be undoubtedly proud of his young cast and rightly so. A stunning production and a must-see for all fans of musical theatre.
Rob Hall – Oxford Times, 13th April 2017
The Hired Man was an unusual choice for this year’s Musical Youth Company of Oxford (MYCO) musical. To be honest, if it hadn’t been MYCO performing it, I’m not sure I would have been tempted out to see a musical version of a Melvyn Bragg novel, after reading a googled synopsis of the plot. Perhaps, I wondered, after 30 years of musicals such as West Side Story, Oklahoma and 42nd Street, MYCO had exhausted the list of family favourites? More likely, MYCO’s established reputation for polished productions and their proven prowess (including last year’s National Operatic and Dramatic Association Flame Award for “inspirational contribution to the pursuit of excellence in theatre”) emboldened them to tackle the challenges of this lesser-known work.
The Hired Man is a musical of two halves. The first half, set wholly in 1898, comprises more traditional musical material, focusing on the deep layers of emotional entanglement in the love triangle of Emily, her husband John and his employer’s son, Jackson. There are two classes in their rural community: the farmers and the hands they take on at hiring fairs. Membership of either is an accident of birth and the only difference between them is ‘we’re in charge and you are not’. But neither life is easy: the farmers are stuck with their parcel of land and the worries of how to make a living from it; the hired hands are free to choose between hard toil on the land and hard toil down the pit.
The second half takes the audience on a whistle-stop tour of early 20th-century social history, as the action jumps forward from 1914 to 1918 to 1920 in a quick succession of scenes depicting family life in a factory worker’s cottage, military enlistment, life in the trenches, mining union disputes, votes for women. In this half the family story progresses in fits and starts, as the social history takes centre stage.
For me, the most memorable moments were all in the first half, from the bantering “Who Will You Marry Then” sung by Emily and her friend Sally, as together they shake out and fold billowing sheets, to the dramatic freeze-frame moment of the fight between John and Jackson while Emily wrestles with her feelings in her “If I Could” solo.
There were stand-out performances from some of the principals. Most notable was Sally Needham as Emily, whose strong voice sailed effortlessly out over the audience, as her character struggled with waves of emotion. She did a superbly credible job of gradually ageing, from the buxom young bride at the opening, to the careworn bereaved mother dying from tuberculosis at the end. Alek Auton delivered her role as May, Emily’s young daughter, with fresh winsome charm as she gloried with naïve joy in the delights of the countryside. Johnny Allison (John) and Finlay Pratley (Jackson) gave powerful performances as the rivals for Emily’s affections, the three characters moving through a succession of strong solos and duets.
As always, the whole cast pulled together and made a strong ensemble. Membership of MYCO provides so many kinds of educational opportunities for all participants, from subsidised vocal training to a whole cast visit to the Imperial War Museum to discover something of the realities of the First World War. This comprehensive attitude to involving the entire cast in the wider context of the musical, from technical training and choreography to socio-historical context, culminates in the fine performances we have come to expect from MYCO. I look forward to seeing what they will do next.
Heather Kay – Daily Information
12th April, 2017
Many thanks to Sam Henney for the invitation to attend and review the latest production from the Oxford based youth group MYCO (Musical Youth Company of Oxford) – The Hired Man. This is my third annual visit to a MYCO show since becoming the District 12 Regional Representative and I have to say the standard of production and the amazing skills of these young and enthusiastic actors just continues to rise.
This musical by Howard Goodall and based on the book by Melvyn Bragg was voted by some critics ‘Best Musical of the Year’ at its West End premiere in 1984. Tonight’s performance would have echoed that sentiment, I’m certain, as this was a breath taking and inspiring interpretation of this tale of love, betrayal – and fighting for rights now taken very much for granted – as the 20th century is about to dawn.
With high production values and an experienced production team as well as dedicated actors, crew, musicians (and supportive parents) this was a delight from the rousing opening chorus to the powerful and dramatic finale.
Where to start? So much effort and sheer hard work that had gone into this polished production it is hard to know which part of the evening to comment on first.
Many thanks must go to Julie Fisher for her warm welcome and much appreciated refreshments. The packed foyer of the Theatre at Headington was certainly filled with a buzz of anticipation.
In the auditorium the open stage revealed the clever set design by Director Ed Blagrove in collaboration with Duncan Blagrove. The simple design of a central raised walk-way positioned to the rear of the main playing area and accessed by stairs at either end enabled to action to take place on a variety of levels making for some interesting and striking ‘pictures’. The design of the set ensured that scene changes were smooth and speedy thus enabling the narrative to proceed at a cracking pace. Props co-ordinated by Julie Todd and Julie Fisher and other stage dressing such as a dining table and chairs were very quickly placed and removed during blackouts with barely a pause for breath.
Wardrobe mistress Sue North and her not inconsiderable team had costumed the production with authentic looking costumes and everyone looked splendid. There could have been a slightly more ‘earthy’ look to the costumes – the ladies all looked remarkably clean and pristine for hard working miners’ wives. The military uniforms looked very good and I noted these had been obtained from Lichfield Costume Hire. Who made all the other costumes for such a large cast? Presumably Sue and her team – and what a wonderful job you all made of it.
Craig Smith’s hair and make-up design was very good and the cast looked perfectly in period with the passage of time being cleverly addressed especially in the principal line-up.
Ashley Bales atmospheric lighting design certainly enhanced the mood and feeling of the piece and all lighting cues seemed to go according to plan. The lighting in the battle scenes was particularly dramatic and effective.
The sound design by Indi Bradley worked well although on a few occasions there seemed to be problems with the mikes. It is a huge undertaking to ensure in modern musical theatre that the sound is all working correctly and with what appeared to be a myriad of cast members requiring a mike the overall result was very good.
Libby Holcroft’s programme and publicity design was first class. This was an interesting and informative programme packed with wonderfully evocative photographs of the cast in rehearsal and some in costume ‘on location’. Many interesting facts about the group, the Directors notes and even head shots of every member of the ensemble made this a very professional looking programme. The programme was printed on very good quality paper and worthy of a place in any professional theatre foyer. I would recommend putting it forward into this year’s Programme and Poster Award category. Details of which may be found on the NODA London Website.
The chorus work in MYCO is always of a high standard. However, the chorus work in The Hired Man was exceptional. The single focus of the entire ensemble was really amazing. Movements were well coordinated and carried out with precision. The ‘freezes’ (notably in the fight scene) and groupings were dramatic and beautifully executed.
Kerry Hudson’s inspired and evocative choreography particularly enhanced the mood and style of the production. There were many memorable moments including the stylised and powerful movement in the ‘work’ number and a particularly entrancing and moving ballet sequence in the war song. The movement and dance was of a high standard and the hours of hard work which had gone into rehearsing it was very evident. Many congratulations!
Musical Director Julie Todd had obviously worked very hard with the principals and like-wise with the ensemble. The result was very clear diction and a glorious sound – in short – some wonderful performances from all members of the cast. The small eight strong band was never obtrusive and perfectly complimented the vocals.
Ed Blagrove is a seasoned and talented young director who always has a clear ‘vision’ which when realised translates into wonderfully evocative story telling. In this production Ed’s talents were very much on display. Working with Ed on many occasions has given me an insight into his attention to detail and how he encourages each member of the cast to create and develop their own ‘character’ which gives everyone a focus and meaning for their actions on stage. This production showed that special talent off to very good effect. The chorus work was, as has already been stated, exceptional but Ed also drew some remarkably mature and striking performances from his cast of principals. The pace was always good and entrances and exits were set to utilise the many and varied ways the chorus and principals accessed the playing area. Many congratulations on a fine piece of musical theatre.
Here was a group of talented and committed young actors who brought humour, pathos and realism to a story with mature and complex themes.
Heading a strong line up of principals was Johnny Allison who vividly brought to life the character of John Tallentire the ‘Hired Man’ and central figure in the story. Displaying excellent stage presence Johnny gave a powerful and moving performance conveying the highs and lows in his characters life with great passion and verve. He used the stage well and the chemistry with stage wife Emily was strong. Excellent vocals and clear diction made this an exemplary performance.
Emily was beautifully played by the talented Saffi Needham. There was great warmth in her relationship with John but the guilt in her longings for a different life was well captured. Saffi displayed excellent stage presence and her performance was thoughtful and mature. Saffi’s vocal delivery was excellent and diction clear. Her final scenes were particularly moving as she reflected on times gone by. A first rate performance indeed.
Emily’s close friend and confidant Sally was played endearingly by Maddie Pirrie. This was a warm and very believable portrayal of close friendships and secrets only close friends can share. Sally’s duet with Emily ‘Who shall you marry then’ was delightful with some lovely choreography. Maddie displayed good stage presence and vocals and diction were good. Well done!
Seth and Isaac Tallentire, John’s brothers, were played confidently by Ben Platt and Oscar Pratley (who sported a splendid beard – no doubt to differentiate him from his twin brother – Finlay- also appearing in the principal line-up). Both actors gave assured performances using the playing area well and getting very different slants on their characters whilst still retaining that strong brotherly bond. Well done to you both.
Jackson was played convincingly by the above mentioned Finlay Pratley. This character has to be strong and seem aloof and Finlay succeeded on both counts but at the same time his illicit love affair with Emily was played with strong emotions and a very tangible chemistry between the two actors. Their powerful duet ‘I wouldn’t be the first’ was yet another memorable moment in the production. Excellent diction in vocal and spoken dialogue made this a very believable characterisation.
In Act 2 following the passage of time we met John and Emily’s now growing children – May – played with immense confidence and humour by Alek Auton and her younger brother, Harry, played by a perfectly cast Lucas Lluna.
Alek gave us a delightfully innocent and skittish May as she sang the lovely ‘You never see the sun’ which opened the act. This was a standout performance with lots of humour and some lovely stage movement. Alek developed the character well and when we later saw the tragedy unfolding at home she gave a very moving performance. Excellent stage presence and crisp spoken and vocal dialogue made this a very accomplished characterisation.
Lucas captured the youth and determination of the young Harry perfectly. The interactions with members of his stage ‘family’ were very believable. Clear diction was also a feature of this mature and well-judged performance. Congratulations.
This was certainly a very ensemble based production and I have only praise for all of you with named parts and also those who formed the hugely important main ensemble. Unfortunately I do not have space to mention everyone individually but rest assured all the performances in this production were first class and it is said, a chain is as strong as its weakest link and this was a very strong chain indeed.
The ensemble work was outstanding and as mentioned elsewhere the freezes, movement, dancing and pictures you all created were terrific. So, many congratulations to you all!!
The audience must have been overwhelmed by the spectacle this musical presented in all aspects of the production.
Finally, may I say a huge thank you to everyone at MYCO and who was associated with this production of The Hired Man? It was certainly an evening’s entertainment I shall not be forgetting for a long time!!
With very best wishes,
Rob Bertwistle, Regional Representative (District 12)
Some words from Annie Hertler-Smith NODA London Youth Advisor.
I was very much looking forward to seeing your production of The Hired Man as I loved the show when I first saw it 10 years ago (and never since) and I was not disappointed! It is a very brave decision to take on a show which I suspect none of the cast and most of the audience had even heard of before.
You are all to be congratulated on what I think was the best show I have seen you do since 2009. All cast members were so well drilled and focussed. Principals captured their characters with maturity, especially as they aged with the passing of twenty one years. Excellent singing from soloists and the full company. I was completely swept along with the story and for me JOHNY ALLISON deserves a special mention for an outstanding performance.