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Hard Times

Deborah McAndrew, based on the novel by Charles Dickens
Northern Broadsides
The Viaduct, Halifax

Vanessa Schofield (Louisa Gradgrind) and Howard Chadwick (Josiah Bounderby) Credit: Nobby Clark
Hard Times cast Credit: Nobby Clark
Paul Barnhill (Mr Sleary) and cast Credit: Nobby Clark

First published as a serial in 1854, Hard Times is far from being the most famous or beloved of Dickens’s novels. Most theatregoers will have some familiarity with the plots of Oliver Twist (1839) and A Christmas Carol (1843)—thanks largely to numerous film and TV adaptations—but this is resolutely not the case with Hard Times.

However, Dickens’s tenth novel does have some impressive admirers, including John Ruskin and George Bernard Shaw. In The Great Tradition (1948), the literary scholar F R Leavis described Hard Times as Dickens’s greatest achievement, arguing that it is the only novel of his with a serious philosophical argument to make: namely, that utilitarianism—particularly in education—has a warping effect on peoples’ lives.

Thomas Gradgrind (Andrew Price) runs a school at which pupils are taught only what he considers to be useful (i.e. facts) at the expense of imagination. This has a disastrous effect on his two children—Tom (Perry Moore) grows up to be spoiled, sullen and stupid, while Louisa (Vanessa Schofield) becomes emotionally repressed and marries a man she doesn’t love, the grotesque Mr Bounderby (Howard Chadwick).

Bounderby owns several mills in Coketown, an industrial hub in Northern England. One of his employees, the ill-fated Stephen Blackpool (Anthony Hunt), is a model employee. However, he finds himself cast out by both his employer and his workmates when he refuses to join their union. In this storyline, Dickens seeks to illustrate the dehumanising effects of industrialisation, with workers being reduced to cogs in a manufacturing machine.

This brief summary makes Hard Times sound terribly serious, but it is—of course—shot through with the black comedy and pathos for which Dickens is so dearly loved. Hard Times also acknowledges the power of the imagination, as symbolised by a troupe of circus performers who make intermittent appearances throughout the show.

Fans of Northern Broadsides will not be disappointed by this production as it displays all the qualities that make them such an enduringly popular company. As usual, the ensemble playing is very impressive, with many of the actors clearly relishing the opportunity to sink their teeth into Dickens’s larger-than-life characters.

Several performances stand out in particular. Howard Chadwick steals the show as the blustering Bounderby and Victoria Brazier is fabulously despicable as Mrs Sparsit, his high-born housekeeper—it’s a pleasure to watch them get their comeuppance at the end. Suzanne Ahmet skilfully charts the progress of Sissy Jupe, a free-spirited young girl who struggles to conform to Gradgrind’s soul-destroying brand of education.

Dickens’s virtuous characters are often his least interesting, and this is certainly the case with Stephen Blackpool. Despite a solid performance from Anthony Hunt, I found myself unmoved by the character’s plight. Indeed, there is something blackly comic about the way Dickens lays misfortune after misfortune upon him.

Perhaps I would have felt more emotionally invested in Blackpool if more of the production had been devoted to depicting the lives of the mill workers and their struggles. On the whole, Deborah McAndrew—a prolific and talented adapter—does a good job of condensing the plot of Dickens’s novel, but this particular narrative thread felt neglected.

Despite these quibbles, there is still much to enjoy in Hard Times. Director Conrad Nelson has put together a lively, well-paced production that keeps you immersed for the length of its two-and-a-half hour running time.

Reviewer: James Ballands