Writer: Charles Dickens
Adapter: Deborah McAndrew
Director/Composer: Conrad Nelson
Designer: Dawn Allsopp
Musical Director: Rebekah Hughes
Reviewer: Ron Simpson
Northern Broadsides’ return to the Viaduct Theatre for the first time since the departure of Barrie Rutter, finds the company absolutely at the top of its game. Deborah McAndrew’s adaptation of Dickens’ Hard Times is as theatrically expansive as Conrad Nelson’s direction and informed by, but never bound by, a scholarly appreciation of the text and themes.
Hard Times, unlike so many of Dickens’ novels, doesn’t deal primarily with a young man’s formative years – in fact, the young men in Hard Times are a pretty bad lot and get worse as the novel progresses. The central character may even be seen as not a person, but a theory – Gradgrind’s Utilitarianism rather than Thomas Gradgrind himself.
Coketown is the archetypal Victorian industrial town, controlled by two successful businessmen, allies and, apparently friends. Thomas Gradgrind is, in his own distorted way, a thinker and an idealist, a man who believes that educating the young in a cold-blooded devotion to facts is a moral duty. Josiah Bounderby settles for the more orthodox course of grinding the faces of the poor – and also devotes himself to polishing his own self-aggrandising myth.
No particular enemy breaks up the comfortably smug existence of Gradgrind and Bounderby; rather they are brought down by their own character failings, such as Bounderby’s overweening pride, and errors of judgement – Gradgrind, for instance, being foolish enough to apply his educational principles to his own children. There are influences from outside, too, most obviously the circus. When Sissy Jupe, the clown’s daughter, is introduced into the Gradgrind household, her subversive influence suggests to young Louisa Gradgrind that the world contains love, compassion and fun as well as square roots and dictionary definitions.
The circus is key to McAndrew’s superb adaptation. Each of the ten actors, except Suzanne Ahmet whose engaging Sissy Jupe is in both worlds, has a circus role alongside his or her part(s) in the “real” world. The circus, with its brassily assertive band and leaping or posing performers, introduces the play, the confrontation (fairly amicable) with Gradgrindism is instant and the circus is there at the climax. As an alternative world-view, the circus is crucial to the critique of materialism – and hugely entertaining, too. Paul Barnhill’s circus owner, Mr. Sleary, gets the evening off to a barnstorming start, a rollicking performance, but with plenty of light and shade.
Another alternative world-view comes from the independent-minded millhand, Stephen Blackpool, in Anthony Hunt’s tight-lipped portrayal less overwhelmingly virtuous than he is often seen as being: honest, puzzled, obstinate.
McAndrew and Nelson’s determination to free Hard Times from the domination of the black chimneys of Coketown, to make it more than a gloomy illustration of “It’s grim up North”, shows in Howard Chadwick’s Josiah Bounderby. The man is odious, of course, but it’s also a comic tour de force as he bumptiously parades an upbringing to shame Monty Python’s four Yorkshiremen. He also does a fine line in bitterness – it’s odd that, in such a warm-hearted production, so many characters (notably Victoria Brazier’s vinegary Mrs. Sparsit) are so convincingly malicious.
The characters of Thomas Gradgrind and his daughter Louisa are both drawn with great skill. McAndrew and Nelson wisely resist the temptation to make Gradgrind a grotesque (one Bounderby is enough); in Andrew Price’s intelligent performance he is not cruel or stupid, simply obsessively wrong-headed, and he learns most painfully. Louisa’s progress, convincingly charted by Vanessa Schofield, is from acquiescence to passionate conviction.
The whole cast functions as an exuberant ensemble as well as giving impressively detailed performances, Nelson and Rebekah Hughes ensure a variety of musical treats and Dawn Allsopp’s designs mean we never forget the circus.
Touring Nationwide | Image: Nobby Clark