Chris Eldon Lee reviews ‘Hard Times’, which is at the New Vic Theatre in Newcastle-Under-Lyme until Saturday 14th April
What kind of upbringing do we want for our children? To be stuffed with information at a strict school? Or to be allowed to run away to join the circus? Should our youngsters’ lives be one of education or excitement? Learning or imagination? Submission or adventure? Constraint or freedom?
Most parents would choose somewhere in between those extremes, but in ‘Hard Times’, Charles Dickens set out to show what might happen if pupils were given numbers rather than names and force fed on facts and figures. 150 years later, we don’t need to him to demonstrate the dangers. The present day national curriculum and evil insistence on exam-cramming does that for us.
Debra McAndrew has written an earnest and faithful adaptation of the 1850s novel which is delivered by an industrious and spirited ensemble of ten talented players. The problem is that the show comes in at a little under three hours. So ‘Hard Times’ is hard work. I fancied for a while that they had bitten off a little more than they could chew…but director Conrad Nelson tidily brings the many story lines home to roost in the swiftly-moving second half.
What works beautifully are the characterisations. Dickens had a gift for creating well-drawn and exaggerated individuals who are immediately recognisable types, inflated beyond the everyday. The loud and lively Northern Broadsides actors cleverly push them to the point of being cartoons…but not quite.
The company’s founding father Barry Rutter has hung up his five and nines; but he has a natural stage successor in Howard Chadwick, a boisterous beast who hurls his lines at the audience with blood vessel-bursting force. His character, Josiah Bounderby, is a self-made man; and it’s decent of him to take the blame. He’s a small-town Mister Big…with an eye on a slip of a virgin three decades his junior. Dickens has him wrench a lecherous kiss from her. That must have been bad enough in the 19th century – but the 21st century audience audibly recoiled at the sight of it.
She is young Louisa; the daughter of a well-meaning town tradesman who has founded a school to peddle his ideology. It’s a highly impressive performance by Vanessa Schofield, who has to be pious but persuasive as she carries the moral message of the play. Late in the story, Dickens has her emotionally curse her own destiny. It’s a commanding moment.
Victoria Brazier also shines in her Northern Broadsides debut. Like most of the cast she has more than one character to play but her portrayal of Mrs Sparsit – the faintly sinister interfering old biddie – is as finely balanced piece of understated comedy acting as you’ll ever see. And I was impressed (yet again) by Suzanne Ahmet as the fiery, gobby circus girl Sissy who forsakes acrobatic ‘tumbling’ for her times tables because her Ring Master father hopes it will do her good. Needless to say, disillusionment is soon shot through her face, but the pace and optimism she brings to the part energises the whole play.
The Northern Broadside trademarks are present and correct. There must be hundreds of entrances and exits; there’s some fine Brass playing, and the opportunity to make a political point about trade unions is far from missed. I sense Dickens was dismissive; but the slant given to his words champions them.
All the actors also have a bright and bouncy circus role to play; fire eaters, acrobats, cowboys and muscle men. The scenes in the Big Top colourfully bookend the show and I would have liked a little more of the razzmatazz throughout it. But, this will come to Stoke as the summer unfolds and we celebrate the 250th anniversary of the founding of modern circus by the Newcastle Military man, Philip Astley. Of which, more anon.
Photo : Nobby Clarke
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