THEATRE | HARD TIMES Northern Broadsides @ Viaduct, Halifax and on tour

It’s a Dickens classic adaptation as Hard Times tours throughout the region with strong characters and innovative staging. The relative values of facts and feelings are at the heart of this NORTHERN BROADSIDES show, and RICHARD HORSMAN was at the press night.

It’s always a joy to see Northern Broadsides perform in their spiritual as well as their physical home in the Viaduct Theatre beneath Dean Clough Mills in Halifax.

All the elements are there, in this new production of Dickens’ Hard Times. Strong characters, brought to life in the company’s distinctive northern voice. Innovative staging, with wheels from industrial machinery laced with red ribbons in a surreal amalgam of circus and factory, the brick arches ringing as a ragtag circus band performs and then echoing again later to the poignant lilt of a folk song. All within the intimate Viaduct space where the action unfolds, promenade style, between two small banks of seats facing each other.

Roll up, roll up. The circus is in town but Tom and Louisa Gradgrind will soon face new challenges

The themes of the text have a contemporary resonance, too.

The company cannot have anticipated opening the show in a week in which Mr Gradgrind’s view of education (“Facts! Nothing but facts …”) are echoed with a government minister stressing the role of times tables in education, and a renewed debate over the relative merits of arts and science courses at Universities.

Coketown could be any town in the north facing an uncertain future in changing times.

The company’s great achievement is to turn some of Dickens’ two dimensional characters into living. relatable people.

Vanessa Schofield (foreground above) is outstanding as Louisa, schoolmaster Gradgrind's dutiful daughter, as is Suzanne Ahmet (in the background) as the spirited circus girl Sissy Jupe.

Vanessa Schofield (foreground above) is outstanding as Louisa, schoolmaster Gradgrind’s dutiful daughter, as is Suzanne Ahmet (in the background) as the spirited circus girl Sissy Jupe.

Howard Chadwick as Bounderby and Andrew Price as Gradgrind in conversation

Howard Chadwick (left, above) relishes the OTT awfulness of Coketown banker Bounderby, in a performance with more than a nod to Monty Python, whilst Andrew Price (right) brings conviction to Gradgrind’s obsessions. His profile alone in a top hat justifies his casting in a Dickens role.

Meanwhile Anthony Hunt brings an simple authenticity to the decent world view of Steven Blackpool, the millhand who stands by his word in marriage and in work even as events in both spiral out of his control.

Darren Kuppan shows his versatility in the dual roles of loner Bitzer, bank caretaker and faithful disciple of the Gradgrind school of facts, and as the exotic outsider Harthouse who woos the unprepared Louisa from her path of cold logic.

It ought to be brilliant, in the way Northern Broadsides last adaptation, For Love Or Money, was so remarkable. It shares many of the same elements, including a mysterious old woman whose identity proves key to unravelling of the plot, and money missing from a bank. But there’s a problem, and the problem is Dickens.

Charlie was not a master of subtlety – any sledgehammer will do to manipulate his readers’ emotions, so why not subject our decent everyman character to a lingering death after a fall down a mine shaft? Similarly Bounderby’s “I were born in a cardboard box ..” schtick sits uneasily with his grooming of Louisa and her father. Deborah McAndrew does what she can with the words in this adaptation, but its a Dickens of a task.

As a result the production often feels uneven as real anguish and emotion are juxtaposed closely with cartoonish humour. There’s not much room to breathe.

That said, it’s a show to be appreciated for its elements.

The vibrancy and energy that the cast bring to its execution. The colours and sounds of the circus. The way in which Director and Composer Conrad Nelson integrates music to the experience, and Lucy Archbould’s costumes. It was a bold decision to adapt Hard Times for the stage, and any difficulty comes from the density of the source material. Hardcore Dickens fans will love it. Others may find it harder going.

Hard Times continues its run at the Viaduct Theatre, Dean Clough, Halifax until Saturday 24 Feb

It then tours as follows:

Tue 27 Feb – Sat 3 Mar –The Dukes, Lancaster

Tue 6- Sat 10 Mar –The Lowry, Salford Quays

Tue 27-31 Mar (no performance on 30 Mar) –Liverpool Playhouse

Wed 4- Sat 14 Apr –New Vic Theatre, Newcastle-under-Lyme

Tue 17 – Sat 21 Apr –Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough

Wed 2-Sat 5 May –Lawrence Batley Theatre, Huddersfield

Wed 16- Sat 19 May –Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds

Tue 22- Sat 26 May –West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds


Production Protography: Nobby Clark