Hard Times – Review – West Yorkshire Playhouse
By Eve Luddington, May 2018
Northern Broadsides’ versatile and energetic company have brought Deborah McAndrew’s adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Hard Times to West Yorkshire Playhouse, with their trademark mix of exuberant acting, music and song.
Dickens’ novel, written in 1854 and the only one set wholly in the North, is a tapestry of mid 19th century life in ‘Coketown’, thought by many to represent Preston in Lancashire. Like the town, the names of its characters are onomatopoeic statements of their essence. The mill-owner and banker, Josiah Bounderby, employs many of the other characters; his friend Gradgrind the school teacher values only ‘facts and figures’. Both treat their charges as automata and decry the world of the imagination. Their sphere of dark satanic mills, rote learning and emotional ignorance is juxtaposed with – a circus.
The connection between them is Sissy Jupe, a circus girl adopted by Gradgrind whose emotional freedom cannot be ‘tamed’ by the teacher’s strict authoritarianism. You can take the girl out of the circus but never the circus out of the girl. Her feisty, humane approach to life becomes a ‘catalytic converter’ for Gradgrind and his daughter. Dickens pours comic bile over his ‘baddies’ while dramatically presenting the outcomes of their conduct on their victims.
Deborah McAndrew’s fine adaptation necessarily simplifies Dickens’ text but manages to spin many narrative threads in the first half which are drawn together tidily in the second. Much of the language is lifted from Dickens, allowing the actors to exploit fully his colourful, eclectic mix of characters. McAndrew uses the circus very effectively as a framework, and for brief narrative episodes. The play begins and ends with the circus which also provides a metaphor for the imaginative daring needed by characters to break free from the confines of a utilitarian regime.
The stage picture effectively captures this theme. The vibrant costumes of the circus characters contrast well with the dark or drab tones of Gradgrind, Bounderby and the workers. Designer, Dawn Allsopp, serves the touring production brilliantly. The set, an austere brick structure with forbidding doors and small windows, looms upstage but the octagonal flooring and ‘roof’ reference the big top of a circus.
In West Yorkshire Playhouse, the tiered, 3-sided seating layout adds to the sense of circus. Sparse furnishings are used very effectively to place the multiple short scenes: their re-positioning by the actors, often to musical interludes, has visual interest and never detracts from the action. This touch epitomises the production and Northern Broadsides’ company values: everyone uses their particular expertise to create a harmonious, engaging and satisfying whole. This is in no small part a result of Conrad Nelson’s direction and his musical composition, which references music hall and other popular Victorian songs. He has brought together all elements of theatre to make a slick, well-paced and largely exuberant production, suitably restrained at heart-tugging moments.
There’s only enough space here to mention the major characters but, be assured, there’s a lot of brass in the music ensemble and throughout the bold characterisation, performed by a cast of 10 who all take on multiple roles, sing and play instruments.
The ringmaster and political agitator are both played with gusto by Paul Barnhill. Andrew Price’s Thomas Gradgrind is suitably severe but by no means one-dimensional. Claire Storey plays his ineffectual wife with comic pathos. Gradgrind’s son (Perry Moore), a sulky self-seeker, brutalised by his father’s regime, is well-defined. Society gentleman from London, Mr Harthouse, is played with appropriate gentility and bemusement by Darren Kuppan. Sissy Jupe (Suzanne Ahmet) displays spirit and feistiness as the circus girl adopted by Gradgrind. Anthony Hunt conveys well the poignant plight of Stephen Blackpool, mill worker, relating well to his loyal friend Rachael who is played heartwarmingly by Victoria Brazier. She also gives us a delightfully nasty Mrs Sparsit, the epitome of the nosy onlooker, complete with binoculars to spy on the antics of others.
I have a quibble about the ‘local’ accents which roam across the Pennines. This may have been intentional but I found it slightly distracting. This aside, each role, large or small, is individually identifiable with well-observed characterisation, usually teetering on the right side of caricature. Overall, the performers work together to make a beautifully cohesive ensemble. In a talented, committed cast, there were two outstanding performances for me.
“Creates an empathy”
Howard Chadwick plays Josiah Bounderby, the heartless capitalist who turns out not to be as ‘self-made’ as he constantly boasts. This portrayal captures perfectly my image of an obnoxious Dickens character. It’s larger-than-life but never caricatured, instantly recognisable as the bounder you love to hate. Even Chadwick’s cameo of a circus strong man is arresting, and he’s a mean trumpeter too.
Vanessa Schofield is superb as Louisa Gradgrind, daughter of the teacher Gradgrind. Thirty years younger than Bounderby, Louisa accepts his proposal of marriage for selfless reasons. Schofield gives us a sensitive, intelligent 20 year-old, aware that her rigid upbringing lacks something important but unable to pinpoint what until her repressed feelings are stirred by a London visitor. Her performance is a naturalistic fully-rounded one, heartfelt and at times heartrending – she draws the audience in and creates an empathy which takes us beyond plotline into the emotional intelligence which Dickens considered so important in creating a humane society.
Perhaps it’s a sign of our own hard times that the theatre was only half full on the night I attended. It’s a shame. This ‘Hard Times’ is a play for today: it’s a challenge to a society which sometimes seems run by heartless people who promote money-making and hard graft above all, disregarding human needs and the suffering their policies produce. Dickens knew the vital importance to humanity of imaginative thought and creativity. What would he think of the EBacc which is being introduced in schools across the country and which totally excludes study of the Creative Arts?! West Yorkshire Playhouse is the last venue of this tour: get your tickets now!
images: Nobby Clark