Tuesday 22nd May 2018 at West Yorkshire Playhouse.
Northern Broadsides tackle a literary giant with their latest production, Charles Dickens’ Hard Times. Deborah McAndrew certainly set herself a mammoth task in adapting the work of one of the most charmingly verbose figures of the British Literary Canon into two and a half hours of performance. This production, directed by Conrad Nelson, serves the beauty of Dickens’ writing well and the performances are both excellent and sincere in the portrayal of some bold and hilarious caricatures breaking free from their pages to stand in all their fleshy glory on a stage. Despite being a lengthy period piece, rarely does the momentum drop and only the transition choices mar the fluidity of what is otherwise a lovely adaptation of a challenging, comically didactic and sprawling Dickens classic.Against a backdrop of industrialisation, greed and poor relations between workers and masters, Hard Times depicts the perils of being negligent to fancy, sentiment or imagination in favour of facts, reason and more logical, emotionless facts. Louisa Gradgrind and brother Tom are educated by father Thomas Gradgrind in all things sensible; their minds have been trained to shun anything considered fanciful or outside of what is rational and reasonable to a composed and measured mind. This incomplete education predictably leads to hard times for the children, who grow up unable to make the world bend to their unique approach to everything as something straight forward and without any kind of emotional complexity – love, addiction, betrayal and crime are on the horizon and the children are ill equipped indeed. We have the hard times of the children’s predicaments pitted against the hard times being faced by the workers of idle and pompous masters. Dickens was nothing if not a master of satire, and this production shines best when the caricatures expertly observed by Dickens are so playfully and scathingly brought to life by the cast as they satirise marriage, greed, arrogance and the overall notion that Victorian men seem to always assume they know best while perfectly demonstrating their ineptitude – Dickens seems to gleefully point out that they are merely smugly used ‘invisible ink’ under close, knowing scrutiny.While some staging choices pose problems, the cast are superb. Vanessa Schofield largely carries the production as Louisa, a woman failed by her upbringing despite good intentions who finds natural inclinations never nurtured alarming at first but deeply freeing too. It’s not an easy role and Schofield captures the paradoxes of the character very credibly, shifting from a young girl with a rational mind not yet cast in hardened stone to an older, stone cold woman very much the product of her upbringing before awakening to all the experiences denied her until rages and yearns for betterment. Perry Moore’s Tom is a well constructed villain – Moore’s facial expressions and physicality betray the true nature of a man getting by on sheer luck and an easy charm; he’s not much of a sentimental character, but Moore makes him a gentle villain of sorts and very much focuses on him as a product of a negligent education and a ridiculous class system rather than anything more sinister. Suzanne Ahmet is excellent as Sissy Jupe; an exuberant child of the circus plucked from vibrant familiar surroundings and dropped into a whole new world of restraint and high expectations. Ahmet, much like Schofield, showcases an impressive ability to deliver the illusion of a girl growing into a woman with both credibility and in Ahmed’s case, an endearingly lasting scrappiness.The very best characters are reserved for the caricatures of course and each and every biting critique from Dickens comes loudly packaged into what is said or done by a select few glorious characters perfectly played by this cast. Howard Chadwick is an absolute corker as Josiah Bounderby – a bellowing, self-serving, self-satisfied rich fellow who is overly fond of his own voice and full of lectures for one and all. Chadwick gives a brilliant performance from all angles, with physicality and voice sharpened or spread wide to make this character every bit the butt of unspoken jokes. In the exact same vein, Victoria Brazier’s performance as Mrs Sparsit is a glitteringly good, hunched-over highlight; the nosey neighbour, the gossip and the meddler all rolled into one, Brazier delivers a stonkingly good rendition of a beloved batty old lady type. Everything Brazier does is spot on, from posture to pause to wrinkled expressions declaring dismay and suspicion – it’s the best performance of the piece for me. Add to the already triumphant list of well played Dickensian fools Andrew Price as Mr Gradgrind, the man of nothing but reason and facts, with no peripheral vision for anything else, Claire Storey as both the hyperbolically ailing Mrs Gradgrind and the cooing elderly lady Mrs Pegler, and it’s a full house of Dickensian magic.This is undoubtedly a highly ambitious choice for any theatre makers, and this team delivers well on many counts, but the production makes some surprisingly poor and pedestrian choices when it comes to staging which is deeply disappointing when faced with such a strong cast. Dimming lights between scenes is both outdated and clunky, so the sheer volume of moments when lights are momentarily or for a longer period dimmed, give the production a monotony which jars with the quality of the performances and does a disservice to the beautifully polished aspects of the piece. An excellent cast rush around in half light to get to the next scene and at times wait too long for the lights to come up; with pacier transitions, there would be no need for dimmed lights at all, we could have one set of actors running off while the next set run on, with no need at all for unnecessary gaps, so all the shadows and shuffling about could really do with making a speedy exit through a trap door I have to say… The only other qualm from me is that some of the musical interludes provided as distractions for transitions are a tad on the out of tune side – that said, the circus motif does provide a lovely periodical contrast with the dullness of dreary Coketown and its struggling occupants. Another win for staging is the set design from Dawn Allsopp, which is neat, efficient and simple, with hints of pleasant circus colours and a geometric pattern underfoot throughout – my only reservation is the small scale of the set which felt a little lost in a larger venue.This is a beautifully performed adaptation of a very intelligent, funny and gleefully mocking story from one of the greats. It’s rare to see so many perfectly captured performances on one stage and it is most definitely the cast who shine in Hard Times; a walking, talking Dickensian chucklefest of risible characters who deliver big satirical messages while almost always unwittingly showing themselves up.
Hard Times plays at West Yorkshire a Playhouse until May 26th 2018 and you can find tickets here.
Image Credits: Nobby Clark
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