U.K. Review: "Hard Times" by Northern Broadsides at the West Yorkshire Playhouse

Adam Bruce

  • United Kingdom Theatre Critic

Northern Broadsides Theatre Company has been around for quite some time. Its audiences are undoubtedly full of loyal fans that first began following them back when Barrie Rutter formed the company as an answer to the lack of regional voices performing classical and extant texts. In a bid to engage with new fans, the Broadsides have been commissioning new writing and adaptations of classic literary works. The latter is their latest offering, in the form of Deborah McAndrew’s adaptation of Charles Dickens’s Hard Times, under the direction of Conrad Nelson.

Hard Times brings us to the fictitious Coketown, a 19th century Northern industrial town devoid of the joy of life, perpetuated and upheld by the jet black mill smoke of the daily grind. Local middle-class gentleman Thomas Gradgrind (Andrew Price) runs a school where his pupils are taught nothing but facts and figures, and the world of music and art is strictly off limits. When Mr Sleary (Paul Barnhill) is in town, however, the vibrancy of his circus cuts through the monotony of such a world. Sissy Jupe (Suzanne Ahmet), the daughter of one of his clowns, dreams of a life of performance with her father – and when she is accepted into Gradgrind’s school in order to receive a strong education, we meet a host of characters trying to break free from the oppressive backdrop they stand against.

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Deborah McAndrew certainly had a difficult task on her hands in adapting Hard Times for the stage; whilst one of Dickens’s shortest novels, it is also one of his richest and, subsequently, densest. I was very glad to see McAndrew’s adaptation staying true to the richness of this text, with her representations of the characters and their dialogue capturing the very essence of the narrative’s world. She also makes a bold decision, in collaboration with Nelson’s directorial vision for the play, to have a motley musical, Greek chorus-like ensemble cover scene transitions with optimistic flashes of brass band instrumentals. This approach to a Dickensian style narrative is one I haven’t seen before, and it feels like a fresh and welcome approach – and certainly a welcome approach to the direction of new productions by the Broadsides.

Sadly, as is the case with the majority of productions I’ve seen from the Broadsides lately, directorially it’s a case of one step forward and two steps back. This production of Hard Times is no exception, I’m afraid – what Nelson brings to the table with one hand, he takes away with the other. There’s a fresh and welcome approach, yes, but other production values and aspects suffer as a result of neglect. For me, the primary, most saddening let down here is the quality of the performances. It would seem that the rehearsal process has gradually drained the life out of these performances, and everything just feels very mechanical and stale, as if most of the company are executing a set of actions with no real conviction, believability or acknowledgment of stakes being present.

I know for a fact that this is not down to the talent or individual conviction of the performers, many of whom I have seen in other Broadsides productions and have wholeheartedly trusted their execution of the stories they were telling. Under the strain of McAndrew’s rich adaptation, however, these performances waver and only just about manage to carry us through. Dawn Allsopp’s set design remains pleasantly minimal, and while this normally enhances and amplifies performances, here it leaves them stranded, to the point of us struggling to hear executions of dense dialogue and feeling like we cannot truly engage with the life of the character being represented.

In the show’s programme, Nelson writes about his hopes for the company having a bright future. I couldn’t agree more, and honestly wish for them to have a bright, wonderful future, especially as they navigate a new chapter since Rutter’s departure – but it’s about time the company really pushed and imbued its performances with the fire they started with.

Hard Times is at the West Yorkshire Playhouse until 26th May. For more information and tickets, visit https://www.wyp.org.uk/events/hard-times/