Manchester Theatre Awards

> Independent informed reviews by the region’s most experienced critics

Hard Times

Deborah McAndrew
Northern Broadsides
The Lowry, Salford
06 March 2018 to 10 March 2018

The jolly circus ring opening belies the tale of what is to come.

The travelling circus has just camped down in Coketown (Dickens nom-de-plume for Manchester). The top clown is Signor Jupe, whose daughter, Sissy, is a valuable acrobatic member of the performing  team. The entire cast fills the stage and, in tune with today's expectations, most are playing musical instruments - a fitting brass band welcome. But life is about to change for bubbling, travelling Sissy.

Her top clown father, anxious for her further education, has enrolled his beloved daughter into a local school founded by the joyless, stiff-faced entrepreneur Thomas Gradgrind (Thomas Price). A stickler for facts, figures, no slacking and strictly no dabbling in the arts (Dickens again dipping into his abhorrence of strict schooling?). Gradgrind has a charmless thicko of a son (Perry Moore neatly transforms him into the shifty Tom, a would-be crook) and a daughter Louisa, a beauty, brilliant mathematician and deeply unhappy (Vanessa Schofield is perfect casting).

So when do the Hard Times arrive? With the insufferable liar Josiah Bounderby, another Coketown rich mill owner and banker, bombastic, uncaring for his neglected mill workers, constantly shouting everyone down including the newly-formed unions. He also has an eye for Louisa - so not an attractive character, but he plays a mean trumpet.

There have been previous adaptations of Hard Times, but Deborah McAndrew has given us one of theatre's most appealing, in our time.

Reviewer: Diana Stenson


Comment by David Upton

Roll up, roll up, and marvel at the Big Top delights that writer Deborah McAndrew has woven into Charles Dickens' Victorian morality tale. I caught this production earlier on its tour.

In a circus ring of authenticity McAndrew, and director and composer Conrad Nelson, create an entertaining and accessible production. It provides musical interludes amidst all the melodrama, and helps root the story solidly in the Northern setting of Coketown. (Some say it is modelled on Preston, but either way Dickens borrowed another nearby community for the surname of a leading character, one Stephen Blackpool.

In a production whose 10 players often double up for 25 roles there are some rewarding and intricate portrayals.

Marvel at the mesmerising hand movements of Andrew Price, as the measured Gradgrind, or Howard Chadwick as the self-made, mutton-chopped mountebank Bounderby. In ensemble playing of the highest order all 10 swap characters, and musical instruments, with ease.

Playing this game of Victorian society's snakes and ladders is ideally suited to Northern Broadsides' theatre company's wide-angled stage abilities.