Writer: Chares Dickens
Adaptor: Stephen Jeffreys
Director: Chris Lawson
Reviewer: Ruth Gerrard
Timing is occasionally everything and with a general election looming amid a backdrop of political unrest in the UK; Oldham Coliseum’s production of Hard Times fits perfectly into this current programme. Although originally published in 1845; the central themes of Charles Dicken’s novel ring true today. The conflict between the different social classes and the socio-economic issues of the time in the fictional town of Coketown provides the setting for this commentary on the philosophy of utilitarianism and its impact on the lives of those it is deployed on. Poverty, the desire to do the right thing morally and the amassing of wealth by the middle and upper classes and the march of the industrial revolution are subjects that are familiar yet still offer much in the way of debate and social commentary.
Seven actors take on the 19 roles in the play which results in characters transforming before the audience’s very eyes with dazzling alacrity with varying levels of success. Cliff Burnett’s Mr. Gradgrind is obsessed with fact and removing any fantasy and whimsy from life. This is what he preaches as the local schoolmaster and how he brings up his children. Burnett’s voice is a pleasure to listen to and his ability to project into the audience is wonderful. The minor roles he takes on add variety and capture the different social classes of the characters well.
William Travis as Josiah Bounderby is suitably unlikeable and unpleasant. His rapid transformation to Mr. Sleary is a credit to him. His character’s lisping dialogue can be difficult to follow at time as it is delivered at pace but is true to Dicken’s original writing.
Samuel Holland’s turn as Tom Gradgrind is less successful. His portrayal of the gambling, frivolous younger Gradgrind lacks teeth and fails to demonstrate that although he has been brought up the same way as his gentle sister Louisa (Verity Henry); his only interest is in serving number one. He comes across as somewhat drippy rather than egotistical and the different in approach of the two siblings is not clear enough.
The set design is a real credit to this production (Sammy Dowson) and remains fixed throughout; the steel and mill windows serve well for the whole of Coketown and its varied inhabitants. Perfectly lit by Alexandra Stafford – the set is the star of the show.
The main concern with Stephen Jeffreys’ adaptation is its length. This will always be a challenge with Dickens but Hard Times feels like a slog at times. Act One is particular is rather drawn and lacks firm direction from Chris Lawson. The various social positions of the characters are not made clear enough and the piece fails to move at pace until late in Act One. Some scenes appear a little chaotic with too many people speaking at once and battling to be heard over the sound effects used to signify Coketown as an industrial town. Sightlines are not always as clear as they could be when all of the cast are on stage and better use could have been made of costumes to help the audience differentiate between the multiple characters played by the cast in the early stages of the production.
A Dicken’s adaption is a safe bet for a solid story and thought provoking drama. Although there is little in Hard Times that will shock or challenge the audience; it is an entertaining evening where the enthusiasm and energy of the cast itself is a pleasure to behold. It’s another solid production from the Coliseum.
Runs until 3 June 2017 | Image: Joel C Fildes