Hard Times

Reviewer's Rating

Can you conceive of a world where imagination is forbidden?

Deborah McAndrew’s adaptation of Dickens’ 1854 novel Hard Times is a remarkable production, which mixes music, dance, theatre, and humour, setting them against a political and historical background. The play takes place in the fictional city of Cocketown, a typical northern English mill-town inspired by nineteenth-century Preston. In 1854, Preston’s cotton workers were on strike and Dickens attended one of their meetings, where he was impressed by the labourers’ honesty and integrity. As a result, he structured his novel around the conflict between the Utilitarian world of rationality, facts, and evidence, and the – ultimately triumphant – realm of imagination, fantasy, and sensibility.

The play starts with the arrival of Mr Sleary’s circus to the town. The actors, in their colourful, picturesque costumes, invade the stage and bring it to life; some are perched on stilts, others playing in the brass band. Sleary’s clown’s daughter – the young Sissy Jupe, around whom the story revolves – then appears. She is a dynamic, lively girl, who has always lived with the circus and followed their travels. Now, she wants to join the school of Thomas Gradgrind, and receive a strong and strict education. Mr Gradgrind, the founder of the school which focuses only on facts and figures and prohibits any form of art, including fiction and poetry, sees her education as a challenge, a proof of the success of his educational method. However, after Sissy’s arrival, the other children educated at Gradgrind’s school realise what has been missing from their education: sensibility and compassion.

This occurs against the background of the strikes, in which the workers are treated as no more than cogs in a machine, and the failure of Utilitarianism is apparent across both storylines. The actors skilfully recreate the atmosphere of nineteenth-century northern England, deploying strong Northern accents in some cases. Howard Chadwick’s exaggerated vanity in the role of Mr. Bounderby is particularly funny. The decor and costumes also help to create the sense of the time, while the organisation of the audience seating is reminiscent of a circus. The show has a good dynamic, punctuated by the interventions of the musicians, who play Celtic, brass band, and drinking songs throughout. This reflective play is at once a real escape, and a strong reminder of the importance of art and culture in the face of an increasingly Utilitarian world.