The Hired Man, Playhouse, Salisbury

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The Independent Culture

Melvyn Bragg has described his novel The Hired Man as "a cavalcade of working-class history". Set to music by the Howard Goodall, it certainly establishes Bragg as Cumbria's undisputed answer to Barbara Taylor Bradford. Unfortunately, staging it in Salisbury, on the fringes of Thomas Hardy's Wessex, makes one particularly aware how trite and cliché-ridden this musical's depiction of rural life at the turn of the century is. When it comes to tales of the countryside, Bragg and Goodall's Hovis-ad nostalgia - there's even the obligatory whippet on stage - does not hold a flickering candle to the grim verisimilitude and storymaking skill of Hardy.

The hired man of the title is John Tallentire, who sets off with his young wife Emily to find work as a Lakeland farm labourer. What little characterisation there is suggests that he is a miserable workaholic, and that she's a bit of a wild one who starts flirting with the boss's son before she's even unpacked. After a few bucolic ups and downs and paeans of praise to the agrarian life, John's inevitable cuckolding is revealed, whereupon the protagonists communicate their despair to an audience rigid with indifference.

The problem is that Bragg and Goodall have unfortunately omitted to give us any reason for caring about the characters. Following the interval, the personal drama of the first half is abandoned in favour of a simplistic history of the early 20th century in the style of a socialist 1066 and All That (unions good, mining dangerous, First World War started cheerfully, ended badly).

Amid such plotting by numbers, it comes as no surprise that John and Emily's son gets killed in France, and the only twist in the tale is that when John is later trapped underground in a mining accident, it is actually Emily who dies of an unspecified disorder while waiting for news.

Tellingly, this is the first professional revival since the Eighties. Goodall has written a new song especially for this production, and it shows how much he has developed over the 20-odd years since he wrote the score. "Day Follows Day" is an inventive, tuneful and sophisticated ensemble piece - and it highlights even more strongly the dirge-like, plodding nature of so many of the original numbers. They are not aided by the words: "I have everything to lose/ And it's me who has to choose/ And pay the price", which provide evidence of why Stephen Sondheim is the only composer who should be allowed to write his own lyrics.

Goodall's work purportedly draws on both the English choral tradition and traditional folk music: but that does not explain why so much of it has to consist of massed voices bellowing the same tune, with no counterpoint, no harmonies and no let-up. The director, Joanna Read, does little to ameliorate the impact of these choral blasts, as the cast stand immobile, a line of singing heads bellowing towards the audience. For a show with so much going on, it is a remarkably static production. This lack of animation is echoed in the performances, most of which stick firmly to one note throughout.

Against this monotonal ensemble, Glyn Kerslake's John is detached to the point of emotional paralysis, leaving a void at the centre of the piece, while Josie Walker does as much as anyone can with the bald two-dimensionality of Emily's character.

All in all, The Hired Man tries to cram in too much backdrop and offers too little in the foreground to genuinely engage. It may have been the Best Musical of 1985, but, like many things we thought were great in the Eighties, perhaps it should have been left to rest on its laurels.

To 27 September (01722 320333)