Hard Times - Review

As the New Venture's first offering to the Brighton Festival, this adaptation by Frank McCabe and Martin Nichols of Charles Dickens's classic novel offered great scope for imaginative and inventive direction by the co-authors.

The novel is a political and social critique of the Victorian obsession with facts and statistics that were used to justify the inhumanities of industrialization - issues that were powerfully dealt with in this production.

As the story involves scenes in a circus the production was set within a big top with the cast, dressed as circus performers, telling the story and enacting the various parts. On entering the studio theatre the audience were greeted by the cast demonstrating their circus skills that lead into an appropriate prologue before moving on to the main story. The high standard of these skills reflected the serious preparation that must have taken place.

Scenes were enacted between narrative delivered by various members of the ensemble and centered round Thomas Gradgrind – whose world was one of facts to the exclusion of emotions - Josiah Bounderby, a wealthy and successful mill owner and banker and Stephen Blackpool, a simple mill hand - poor and honest to whom great injustices are done.

The strength of the production lay in it having an excellent team providing a strong piece of ensemble theatre that at the same time allowed many fine personal triumphs. Tim Blissett gave a powerful portrayal of the hypercritical mill owner although at times his account of his deprived childhood and the hardships that he faced was very reminiscent of the famed Monty Python sketch.

Whilst Tony Scola was most moving in his bewilderment as his certain world of facts disintegrated when his daughter, played with great sensitivity by Jet Tattersall, confronts him with the misery that he had condemned her to.

There was an astonishing performance from Brandon McGuire as Blackpool. He managed to convey an innate sense of simplicity and goodness that was most moving. His scenes with Mue Jalla, equally touching as Rachel the object of his affections, were almost painful in their tenderness. It was a pity that Mue was, at times, a little too soft of voice causing dialogue to be missed.

The production had two parts played against gender – a device that I often quarrel with. However on this occasion, being that the setting was that of a circus with its elements of pantomime, they were acceptable. Marina Norris played Mr. Harthouse in the style of a Principal Boy whilst Carl Boardman, as Mrs. Sparsit, delighted the audience as a Pantomime Dame even though at times he did come across as the "Lay-dee" from Little Britain.

The production was full of inventive ideas, a prime example being the clever depiction of Blackpool falling down a mine shaft. However, once again I have to take Martin to task for including songs and music that were out of keeping with the period. I know that he will rush to their defence and claim that the words had relevance. To those of us who are not as familiar with the words and their meaning as he is, their inclusion was irksome. Their sense did not come across only a jarring sound.

Not wishing to end on a down note let me thank all concerned for an evening of fine acting and skilful direction.

Barrie Jerram