Writer: Charles Dickens
Adaptor: Deborah McAndrew
Director: Conrad Nelson
Reviewer: Matthew Forrest
When you think of the stories of Charles Dickens, Hard Times probably doesn’t register on most people’s top five or even top ten, of his best-loved works. So bearing this in mind, full credit must be given to Northern Broadsides, in particular, writer Deborah McAndrew, for transferring this hefty tale from book to stage.
It is a brave attempt when you consider the sheer volume of story-line needed to pack in to tell its tale. First there is Tom Gradgrind (Perry Moore), a local businessman from the town of Coketown: he considers the education of his two children Thomas (Andrew Price) and Louisa (Vanessa Schofield) to be of the up most importance. He would see them educated in the way of rationalism and cold hard facts, without need of art, literature and any form of self-expression. Then there is Sissy Jupe (Suzanne Ahmet) a young circus performer, whose Father has abandoned her, whilst taking action to ensure she receives a decent education. Finally there is Stephen Blackpool (Anthony Price), a hardworking factory worker with mounting personal problems. The link to all them is Mr Bounderby (Howard Chadwick). He owns the bank, the factory and the school, and is not shy about telling all who care to listen how he is a self-made man: a Victorian Donald Trump!
This is a bold, ambitious attempt to tell what on paper could be a very drab tale indeed. Director Conrad Nelson’s injects life and humour into proceedings with the introduction of some circus performers right from the get-go. There are fire-eaters, stilt-walkers and acrobats all on hand to grab your attention. Scenes are threaded together by brass bands and folk tunes, which are all performed by this exceptionally talented hard-working cast, with most performing double-duty throughout the night playing two parts. The costumes are bright and simply look fantastic: they certainly add to your enjoyment.
Where the plays lacks its punch is in the storytelling department, some plot strands are underdeveloped, whilst some seem a little laboured;: Stephen Blackpool’s story is arguably the most interesting yet under-developed story and one that ends leaving a sour taste in your mouth. Certainly all plot strands are resolved at the conclusion of the show but that doesn’t mean you’ll be pleased with the outcome.
It can always be said that Dickens’ villains are for more interesting than his hero/heroine’s. Hard Times is certainly no exception with the loathsome Josiah Bounderby and the meddling Mrs Sparsit (Victoria Brazier), with both being quite vile yet providing some of the productions more humorous moments.
Some of the themes of Dickens’s times are more prevalent today than they ever were and McAndrew certainly shines a light on them, which include: the power struggles between the wealthy and the poor, of course, the education system. This gives the play a contemporary feel and certainly draws you in and engages you.
This is a production filled with life and vibrancy that you cannot help but enjoy it, sure may not hit its intended mark all the time, but it will not leave you disappointed.
Runs until the 31st March | Image: Andrew Billington