“No greater pleasure than work done well” sings John Tallentire in the opening number of the Hired Man. And this was very much the case for members of Kilkenny Musical Society as they wowed their audiences at the Watergate Theatre last week. A record seven consecutive standing ovations tells it’s own story. “The best musical I have ever seen”, “I was in tears for most of the second act”, “I have never heard a men’s chorus like it”. These were some of the comments as the audience left the theatre with smiles on their faces and tears in their eyes.
This was very different to anything the society had produced in the past. Virtually no one in the audience had heard of this show before and certainly the music was unknown. And the committee went through a very nervous few days as bookings barely trickled in the week before opening night. But they need not have worried. Once the curtain went down on Opening Night word was out that something special was afoot at the Parliament Street venue. By closing night expectation was very high and a very special night of theatre ensued. The Watergate was buzzing from 7.30 and what followed was truly magical. Every now and again one witnesses a very special theatrical experience and this was one.
The Hired Man tells the story of a young couple starting out in married life hired out as farm labourers at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries in rural Cumbria in the North West of England. It is essentially a love story but Melvyn Bragg’s story explores so many other issues that keep the audience enthralled from start to finish. The struggle of the working classes to eke out a living from the land, the move to the industrial cities and the coal mines for better pay, the birth of the union movement and the struggle for better pay and conditions, And then the onset of the First World War and boy did they capture the horror of the Great War. This could have been a scene from a movie. The lighting, sound and other stage effects and the powerful singing of the soldiers made this one of the most memorable 10 minutes of theatre ever seen in Kilkenny. Add in the emotive letters from John to his wife Emily back at home and one could understand the sobbing emanating all around you.
The final segment explored another issue very close to the minds of Kilkenny people. In a year where the Chilean Mine rescue probably made compulsive TV viewing, “The Hired Man” also had its own mine disaster and it ends with a final twist that probably pushed the hardest of the audience over the edge. As the company of almost 50 finished the final haunting chorale the audience jumped to their feet in a reaction this writer certainly had not witnessed before.
This was a performance of the highest quality and hard to imagine that this was an amateur production. Kevin Reade as John Tallentire built on his tremendous performance as Fagin in “Oliver” which earned him an AIMS nomination last year in the Best Actor category. Newcomer to the Society Rebecca Murphy gave a very powerful performance as Emily. This is a very difficult and challenging role as Emily goes from newly-wed, to an extra marital affair, the stresses of raising a family, the separation from husband at war-time and the loss of her 17 year old son Harry in that same war. John’s brothers Seth and Isaac were played with aplomb by Ciaran Dunphy and Fergal Miller. Matt Berry was a very convincing Jackson the third piece in the love triangle. Following on his roles as Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof and Mr Bumble in Oliver the Kilkenny College Schoolteacher has now firmly established himself as one of Kilkenny’s finest performers. Kevina Cody (May) and John Treacy (Harry) played the Tallentire teenage children and put down a marker for future roles with the Society.
But the strength of this production was the ensemble playing of the company. They told the story through the haunting music and drama. Scenes such as the trio at the end of Act One as Emily agonises over her two loves and the emotive farewell scene in Act two as the womenfolk bid farewell to their fathers, husbands, sons and boyfriends heading to war and the powerful finale will live in the memory of all of us privileged to see it.
This was a triumph for the production team of Director David Heffernan, Musical Director Lar Duffy, Set Designer John O Donogue and Lighting Designer Gerry Taylor. It has certainly put down a marker that Kilkenny audiences can now be assured of top class entertainment when Kilkenny Musical Society takes to the stage. The hope now is that they can continue to bring works to Kilkenny which have not been seen before besides the evergreen favourites. Their bravery this year in staging The Hired Man has been well rewarded.