Fittingly, on a typically bleak, rain soaked Manchester evening, the audience waits to be taken by ushers into the mill for what promises to be an unusual and distinct theatre experience. The Library Theatre Company’s adaptation of Dickens’s novel Hard Times- For These Hard Times is a multi-roomed, promenade feast with the impressive setting of Murrays’ Mill as backdrop.
A stellar adaptation by Charles Way stays faithful to the book with only minor changes for the sake of theatrical sense. Set in the fictional Coketown, Mr Gradgrind, a man of ‘facts and calculations’ and his cold, emotionally destitute children, Louisa and Tom are the epitome of a life imbibed with an oppressive moral code and the effects of utilitarian education over imaginative pursuits. Gradgrind finds his children at a visiting fair and is incensed by what influence this may have upon their developing minds. His answer is to bring home a circus child, Sissy, to give her a life away from such dubiousness.
Bounderby, the mill owner, and Gradgrind’s boss, is an officious boaster and thoroughly loathsome. He has designs on Louisa and, when she comes of age, she willingly, although passively agrees to marry him.
Whilst the wealthy are reaping the benefits of the industrial growth, there is an altogether different story for the workers. Housed in squalid conditions, Stephen Blackpool struggles and, with an alcoholic wife returned from exile he makes to Bounderby’s to ask for a way out of his marriage. Bounderby says no and later, accuses Stephen of pledging secretly to the union, dismissing him on the spot. The worker’s life is one filled with hardship and anguish whilst the wealthy are comfortable and oblivious, Dickens seems to say.
It’s an apt time for a re-telling of such a tale. In today’s climes, the divide between the rich and poor is growing with frightening rapidity. Chris Honer’s production is moving, thoughtful and wonderfully drawn. The cast is par excellence with stand out performances from Richard Heap as Bounderby, David Fleeshman as Gradgrind and Alice O’Connell as Louisa. There are a few surprises along the way, too, with a wonderful prologue to the play-proper and a delightful finale.
Hard Times is in promenade which means moving a great deal. something some of the older audience on the night I attended found tiresome. Sometimes, scenes happen right under ones nose as actors move through the audience, other times, scenes begin right across the space and there is a rush to catch up with the action.
It is a thoroughly enchanting evening and, with comfortable shoes on, it’s a show not to be missed.