It’s hard to imagine a Dickens novel as a stage play. Aren’t they just interminable? Didn’t he string them out to fill the magazines he published them in? The Victorians could do a cracking box set, yes, but a night out?

But Dickens was theatrical to his fingertips. He literally gigged himself to death travelling around acting out his most famous scenes. Coincidentally, given that Hard Times is his ‘Preston novel’, his final reading outside London was in Bolton where he insisted on performing even though he’d had a stroke in Chester a few days before. Even then he carried on up to Preston before being sent home by his doctor.

So it’s no surprise that Deborah McAndrew has found in Hard Times a core of wonderfully dramatic scenes. We follow two ‘families’, each headed by a Victorian patriarch. Mr Gradgrind believes in ‘facts’ rather than ‘fancy’ and brings up his two children Louisa and Tom on these principles, as well taking in Sissy, an orphan from a visiting circus. Mr Bounderby is a self-made man who (in the words of the old joke) worships his creator, and is ministered to by Mrs Sparsit, a genteel lady come down in the world. In due course, he marries Louisa. But all is not as it seems; their austere upbringing does not serve the Gradgrinds well, and Bounderby’s bluster cannot cover the real story of his origins.

What makes this production sing (literally) is the realisation that there is a third, kinder, family as well – the circus folk from whom Sissy comes. In McAndrew’s version they are a far greater presence than they are in the novel. As well as offering an alternative form of social organisation, the clowns, stiltwalkers, strongmen, snakecharmers and fireeaters liven up proceedings wonderfully well. In the process, they give us something far nearer to the carnival barker aspect of Dickens’s authorial voice than a more conventional single narrator might. Add to that the fact that the performers inhabit multiple roles as well as playing a variety of instruments from tablas to trombones, and you have a tight and engaging ensemble production. If the drama doesn’t get you, the bonhomie will.

Some of Dickens’ more grotesque creations jump onto the stage fully-formed. Howard Chadwick’s mutton-chopped ‘I-slept-in-a-ditch-me’ Bounderby struts and bellows beautifully. Victoria Brazier’s Mrs Sparsit is the picture of sneaky obsequiousness, and Claire Storey makes a fine job of the fussy, secretive Mrs Pegler and the moping invalid Mrs Gradgrind. Andrew Price takes Mr Gradgrind from a caricature, drawing imaginary geometric shapes every time a fact is mentioned, to the dawn of a humane awareness. Meanwhile, Paul Barnhill gives the circus boss Sleary plenty of pizzazz. The most impressive performance for me, though, was Anthony Hunt’s Stephen Blackpool. Dickens’ cap-in-hand, suffering, devout, humble victim doesn’t give you much to work with these days, but Hunt brings strength and watchable dignity to the role.  

The more serious side of the drama is mostly in the hands of the younger cast, who all acquit themselves well. Perry Moore as Tom gives you a petulant, self-centred boor without sacrificing sympathy. Vanessa Schofield’s Louisa matches this nicely with more subtle flashes of impatience or anger. And Suzanne Ahmet brings bags of energy to the circus-child Sissy. The versatile Darren Kupan conjures both a villain in the slick seducer Harthouse and the most sympathetic victim of the ‘facts’ philosophy in Bitzer.

Director andcomposer Conrad Nelson keeps the pace tight and the audience engaged in this entertaining showcase of the cast’s talents. Theatrical to its fingertips, you might say.

By Stephen Longstaffe

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Hard Times is at The Dukes, Lancaster until March 3, 2018, then touring to The Lowry, Liverpool Playhouse, Newcastle Under Lyme New Vic, Stephen Joseph Scarborough, Lawrence Batley Huddersfield and West Yorkshire Playhouse

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