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.