Theatre Review: Northern Broadsides HARD TIMES – The Lowry, Salford

Howard Chadwick and Andrew Price in Northern Broadsides' HARD TIMES.

Howard Chadwick and Andrew Price in Northern Broadsides adaption of HARD TIMES. Photo: Nobby Clark

The warmth and camaraderie of the circus becomes the antidote to the cold, unfeeling world of Coketown in Northern Broadsides adaption of Charles Dickens’ HARD TIMES

With a title like HARD TIMES, it’s easy to mistake Charles Dickens’ novel of repression and longing as being a bit grim but behind this sweeping tale of supressed love, seduction and social mores is a story full of colour, life and music. Well, that’s certainly the case with Northern Broadsides adaptation.

Based on Dickens’ 1854 novel, HARD TIMES tells the story of the Gradgrind family. Thomas Gradgrind (Andrew Price) will not permit fanciful thoughts in his school or his home but struggles to protect his children Louisa (Vanessa Schofield) and Tom (Perry Moore) from the corrupting influences of the circus when it comes to town. Taking circus girl Sissy Jupe under their wing, it isn’t long before Tom and Louisa soon discover that facts don’t offer the compassion, empathy and love needed to negotiate life.

The cold, dark and unfeeling world of Coketown is interrupted by the colour and vibrancy of Sleary’s Circus in this warm and witty adaption by Deborah McAndrew. Director Conrad Nelson makes good use of Dawn Allsopp’s industrial set to move easily between scenes and his decision to bring original music into the production, performed here by the talented circus troupe, also works particularly well with the musical interludes proving light relief amidst all the melodrama.

The cast of Northern Broadsides HARD TIMES.

The cast of Northern Broadsides adaption HARD TIMES. Photo Credit: Nobby Clark

In terms of cast, 10 players double up for 25 roles with Vanessa Schofield in particular standing out for her convincing portrayal as the poor, put-upon Louisa whose strict upbringing has ill-equipped her for the emotional rigours of life. Howard Chadwick is also a comic tour-de-force as her husband Mr Bounderby, the gloriously loathsome mill-owner, perfectly embodying Dickens’ exaggerated character.

Yet while McAndrew works wonders with Dickens’ disparate plot, there is a feeling that she’s struggled to cram all the characters and narrative in. The unionising mill workers get minimal air time and the Steven Blackpool subplot also feels a little wooden and undercooked.

That said, this is a witty, entertaining and accessible production of Dickens’ novel and McAndrew’s careful plotting ensures that the overarching theme of the dangers of removing arts from education is never too far away.

4 out of 5 stars

HARD TIMES runs at The Lowry until 10 March 2018.