Deborah McAndrew talks about her adaption of HARD TIMES and the importance of arts in education

Deborah McAndrew

Deborah McAndrew talks to Frankly My Dear UK about HARD TIMES and the importance of arts in education

Deborah McAndrew’s new adaption of Charles Dickens’ HARD TIMES heads to The Lowry next month as part of a four month long UK tour.

The famous Northern novel of repression and longing has been adapted for stage by McAndrew, who is best known as CORONATION STREET’s Angie Freeman in the 1990s.

“I’ve known this book for a long time” explains McAndrew in an exclusive interview with Donna Kelly of Frankly My Dear UK.

“The title is a bit off putting, giving the impression of a story that is relentlessly grim. However, it’s full of all the usual brilliant Dickens characters, and lots of very good jokes.”

“We talked at Broadsides over a number of years about finding the right Dickens to do. It [Hard Times] felt like the one. It’s the one book of Dickens that is completely set in the North of England.”

“More than 20 years ago, I was actually in a stage version of it so it’s also one that I’ve sort of been on the inside of as an actor.”

HARD TIMES tells the story of the Gradgrind family who live in a world where imagination is forbidden. Thomas Gradgrind will not permit fanciful thoughts in his school or his home. But what effect will this policy have on his own children, Tom and Louisa, and how can he protect them from corrupting influences, especially when the circus comes to town?

For the stage adaptation, McAndrew has chosen to focus on the wit, imagination and humour of the piece to make it appeal to a modern audience.

“Dickens is very funny. His characters are funny. They are larger than life, a lot of them and within his social critique is satire and humour” explains McAndrew.

“With this particular adaption, I’ve really run with the circus as the metaphor for the human heart that won‘t be repressed and that needs colour, life, creativity and self-expression. My adaption begins in the circus and the circus girl, Sissy Jupe, who is taken into the Gradgrind household is not able to come up the standards and factual education of the Gradgrind children. She’s already too late, she’s been exposed to fantasy and imagination and that can’t be destroyed in her. Right at the end of the play, without too many spoilers, the circus becomes the salvation of the Gradgrind family and helps them in their hour of need.”

HARD TIMES, which was first published in 1854, is best known for its survey of English society and its satire of the social and economic conditions of the era. Yet despite its age, McAndrew believes lot of the themes in HARD TIMES are still relevant today.

“It touches on lots of things that seem at the moment, to be very pertinent, in particular in relation to education” explains McAndrew.

“In HARD TIMES, Dickens takes Louisa and Tom Gradgrind’s education to the very limits of extremity in terms of the absence of arts from their lives. Their father doesn’t permit them music or stories. Dickens is conducting a thought experiment in a way, in that what would happen to children if you didn’t allow them to have any artistic, creative expression or exposure in their lives? What he concludes is that they are irreparably damaged. They are not just disadvantaged, they are actually damaged.”

“Suddenly these issues are very loud in our culture and our society in 2018 and there’s Charles Dickens, 180 years ago.”

The lack of arts in education is something that McAndrew feels very strongly about. After studying Drama, she considered going into education and was awarded a PGCE in Drama and Special Education from Bretton Hall College.

In addition to her work as an actor and playwright, McAndrew also guest lectures at the Universities of Manchester, Bolton and Staffordshire and has a broad experience of working with young people, coaching for LAMDA exams and in schools for Creative Partnerships.

“What we’re seeing is a kind of version where the arts are degraded. They don’t have the same kind of status as the sciences in our education system. When there are cuts to be made, what gets cut? Arts subjects, every time. It’s because directives are coming from on high and there is no arts subjects in the English Baccalaureate (EBacc), the standard test of education. There is a language in there, a science in there, obviously maths and English but no arts subject.”

“I think it’s because a lot of the arts can’t be quantified, it’s difficult to measure the benefit of the arts. It’s about human beings and the way they feel about themselves, the way they see the world and the way they express themselves. Some of them are on the unmeasurable scope.”

In response to this and in collaboration with Northern Broadside, McAndrew is hoping to engage students from schools and colleges with HARD TIMES.

“In Northern Broadsides, Conrad [Nelson] has really gone out with this one to engage Calderdale College. We’ve got a young emerging writer attached to this project who is going to work with young people from the college to create a responsive piece to what we’re doing in the play.”

McAndrew also hopes the adaption will encourage the audience – young and old – to go away and read Dickens book.

“I hope, as I always hope with an adaption like this, is that they go away and read the book” explains McAndrew.

“I hope they have a really enjoyable evening, that they laugh, are moved, have mix of emotions and that they feel that this story connects with their own lives and their own experiences”.

HARD TIMES runs at The Lowry 6-10 March. Ticket prices start from £15.50