Hard Times

reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds on 16 May

Northern Broadsides have a winning way with their adaptations of now classic plays and novels. The latest is Deborah McAndrew’s version of Dickens’ Hard Times.

The 1854 original was an indictment of the soulless factory system which blighted so much of recently industrialised England, the less-than-caring entrepreneurs it produced and the mind-numbing routines of rote-learning education and repetitive work.

Into Coketown, dominated by self-made factory owner and banker Josiah Bounderby (a magnificent performance by Howard Chadwick which deservedly takes centre stage), comes Mr Sleary (Paul Barnhill)’s Circus. It’s arrival is particularly resented by retired wholesaler Thomas Gradgrind (Andrew Price).

Price gives a well thought-out characterisation of the man who has founded a school and educated his two children in the service of pure utilitarianism. In their different ways, both young Tom (Perry Moore) and Louisa (Vanessa Schofield) rebel.

The catalyst comes when young Cecilia Jupe, pet name Sissy (Suzanne Ahmet) is sent to the school by her clown father. Ahmet captures Sissy’s dilemmas, torn between the apparent freedom of the circus – which itself requires discipline but carries insecurity – and the stability offered by the Gradgrind household.

Any Dickens story has a supporting cast of grotesques and devious-doers. Here we meet ailing Mrs Gradgrind (Claire Storey), fallen-on-hard-times Mrs Sparsit, Bounderby’s housekeeper (Victoria Brazier) and Mrs Pegler (Storey again), all of whom want more from the men of their acquaintance than they receive.

On the make in very different ways are bored society man Mr Harthouse and snooping bank employee Bitzer (a fine double by Darren Kuppan). Virtue is personified by mill-hand Stephen Blackpool (Anthony Hunt) and his platonic love Rachael (Brazier).

Louisa is lusted after by Bounderby as well as Harthouse, and Schofield gives us a portrait of a young woman stifled between duty and a scarcely comprehended yearning for a wider life – of the mind if not the body.  As Moore shows, Tom is oblivious to anything but his own selfish wants, including alcohol and money.

Conrad Nelson’s direction is fast-moving and his score evokes the place and the period; the musical director is Rebekah Hughes. Designer Dawn Allsopp seconds them with a set which allows seamless movement between locations, well lit by Mark Howland.

There are a couple of stage adaptations of Dickens’ novels currently on tour. If you can only see one – then go for Hard Times. This version brings characters which may b unfamiliar, even formulaic to full three-dimensional life. After all, Dickens wrote a paon to the power of imagination as well as a cracking good story.

Four and a half-star rating.

Hard Times continues at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds until 19 May with matinées on 17 and 19 May.

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Filed under Plays, Reviews 2018

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