The Hired Man, Lakeside Arts Centre, Nottingham

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The Independent Culture

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 the West End. The provinces are in for a treat.

Touring to 8 March (www.newperspectives.co.uk)

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