Review: Hard Times, Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough
Charles Dickens’ classic novel, which explores the idea of social standing in relation to facts and the importance of entertainment and fun in shaping young minds, has been adapted to the stage by Deborah McAndrew in splendid fashion. From curtain up, the action and comedy, wonderful costumes and live music carry the story along in a lively, loud and enchanting production.
The story follows the fortunes of Louisa (Vanessa Schofield) and Tom (Perry Moore) the two children of Mr Gradgrind (Andrew Price), who brings his children up to value facts and facts only with no room for imagination or fun. Louisa is eventually married off to the local mill owner, Bounderby (Howard Chadwick), and the story culminates in a humorous unravelling of ideals, social standing and fact as perspective with the value of imagination, play and entertainment, especially in the lives of children, restored.
There is a lot going on in this production which makes it absolutely glorious to watch. But it also means that not all the topics which Dickens covered in the novel are given enough space to breathe. Dickens’ novel focuses in detail on the mill town, for example, and the poor workers who are unionising for better rights, but this is only briefly touched on in the production. A shame in many ways because it adds a definite tonal quality to the high jinks and humour that the circus element and the larger than life characters on the other side of Dickens’ version of the social construct demand.
Having said that, there is plenty of time devoted to the values associated with entertainment such as the importance of fun, and this is a key concept for Dickens too. It’s impossible to recreate a classic for the stage in a way that is innovative and entertaining without cutting something, and certainly laying the lion’s share of the production in comedy makes for an entertaining production. This is a vibrant performance, full of noise and music. Suzanne Ahmet is a great comic contrast as Sissy Jupe to Schofield’s sombre portrayal of Louisa, and Darren Kuppan’s portrayal of Bitzer is genuinely funny.
As with other Northern Broadsides productions I have seen, the ability of the cast to play multiple roles effectively is one of the strong points, but I was even more impressed with this production as the cast played all their own instruments and sang too. This felt like entertainment in the truest sense of the word and I came away feeling refreshed rather than challenged. The singing, music and bright costumes are joyful, the cast and performance are tight, and the pace fast. It felt like the circus had come to town and zipped through in a cacophony of noise and light.
Northern Broadsides is known for its adaptations and innovative approach to well-known stories. This production is no exception and is a true pleasure to behold.
(Main image: Vanessa Schofield as Louisa Gradgrind and Howard Chadwick as Josiah Bounderby. Photo by Nobby Clark)
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