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Hard Times

Charles Dickens, adapted by Richard Hurst
Love & Madness
Taliesin Arts Centre, Swansea
(2004)

Hard Times poster

Theatre companies are increasingly adopting the irritating habit of producing publicity material which - in visual terms at least - is at best misleading and at worst says little or nothing about what might expect from a production. The recent Shakespearean trilogy from Michael Bogdanov's Wales Theatre Company is a case in point - the imagery used to promote the season must have been an absolute nightmare for marketing officers - and the publicity material for this touring production of the Dickens classic is similarly troublesome.

The visual image for the play gives us a pair of contemporary schoolkids (clearly models who bear no resemblance to anyone in the play) set against a photographic montage of political figures, heavy industry, protest marches and overseas sweatshops. Logical to assume, then, that this is a wholly updated adaptation of Dickens' exploration of what the company's publicity material describes as the "incompatibility of the human spirit with the uncompromising logic of industry".

Except that it is nothing of the sort. Well, not really. Not for a while, anyway. The story begins much as one might expect, with characters in Victorian attire exchanging mannered, Dickensian- style dialogue (interestingly, the play was originally to have begun here with a circus performer juggling with fire - a prospect which was, quite rightly, dismissed out of hand by local fire safety officers on the grounds that the venue could quite possibly have gone up in flames).

So anyone expecting a totally modern treatment - count me as one - was on this particular occasion totally flummoxed and distracted by the plethora of stovepipe hats and button-boots. Where were the promised references to "the industrial crises of the 70s, new controls on education in the 90s and the horrors wreaked by globlisation on vulnerable workers worldwide"?

And then, just when one has resigned oneself to the fact that it isn't going to happen, it does: a character at a Victorian wedding pulls out a tiny modern camera and takes a photograph, signalling the point at which the boundaries of time being distorted and blurred. Suddenly we are watching a BBC reporter with a microphone interviewing the victor at the Coketown by-election; we are presented with video images of milestones in political history, and characters in sharp suits, denims and ethnic clothes rub shoulders with Victorian-clad figures throughout the remainder of the story.

Does it work? Yes and no. Obviously there is no way that one can ignore the political themes inherent in Hard Times, but the politics are overplayed to the extent that they obscure other, more subtle aspects of the story: when I first encountered this particular work through watching the Granada TV adaptation in 1977 what struck me most forcibly was the manner in which it addressed the problems which ensue when children are raised without the benefits of love and the horrors which befall them in later life as a direct result.

This adaptation is too busy scoring political points to consider such matters, and although the production values are strong and the overall standards are high, there is a coldness and cynicism at its heart which leave one feeling strangely empty when it is all over. The one thing I took away from the production was the superlative contribution from actress Pip Ripley, here making her professional debut as Sissy Jupe - a tremendous performance, capturing exactly the right sense of period and characterisation.

At the very end of the production - I ask you, how predictable is this? - we are treated to a video replay of Tony Blair's infamous "Education, education, education" party piece, after which the audience leave the auditorium to the strains of Things Can Only Get Better.

Well, one certainly hopes so.

Reviewer: Graham Williams