Written at a time when the author was himself going through ‘hard times’, Charles Dickens’ harsh indictment of the Industrial Revolution first appeared serialised in weekly instalments in his own magazine Household World in the spring of 1854. This allowed him to alter the course of the narrative according to public whim, and to develop deep and intricate plot lines for a huge cast of characters. Hard Times then, focusing on the stark contrast between the lives and the fortunes of the factory owners and their work force, and set in the industrialised north of Victorian England, becomes a tale of epic proportion.
Stephen Jeffrey’s inspired 1982 adaptation rose to the challenge of retelling this story on a more economic scale - with just four actors - at a time of recession when it would simply not have been possible to mount a full scale production requiring a cast of around 20 people. It is apposite that here, in 2011, in a similar financial climate, and facing the same constraints, the hugely talented and inventive Creative Cow have chosen Jeffrey’s adaptation as their 11th production, and are currently touring to rural communities and arts venues around the south west.
As we have come to expect of ‘The Cows’, this production is fresh and exciting, and the four strong cast work untiringly, representing a startling array of characters and sharing narration duties to move the plot along.
Katherine Senior shows a great talent for physical comedy, giving two show-stopping turns as Mrs Gradgrind, and the conniving Mrs Sparsit, and Lizzie Dive delivers fine contrasting performances as the emotionally repressed and somewhat tragic Louisa Gradgrind, and a delightful caricature in Mrs Pegler. Jack Hulland plays a suitably thunderous Josiah Bounderby, doubling as the languorous James Harthouse, and the lisping circus manager Mr Sleary, while Jonathan Parish plays father and son Gradgrind, and young Tom, and the unfortunate and downtrodden Stephen Blackpool, with great aplomb. Indeed all work well together, and sometimes with the subtlest change in tone or stance, shift effortlessly in and out of an array of larger than life characters.
The direction, by Amanda Knott, is tight, and makes imaginative use of a very sparse set, littered with the occasional piece of furniture or prop, step ladders and a wooden plank, which are shifted around creating an endless variety of settings from circus to tavern, school room to mine shaft. Only very occasionally does this clever device feel slightly overdone. Once or twice perhaps, the attention is snatched back from the engrossing storyline to wonder why the characters are speaking to each other a-top step ladders. However, the performances are so engaging that these momentary lapses are not allowed to last long.
Devon-based Creative Cow continues to promote and present top notch theatre around the UK and Hard Times is a fine example of their work. This tour ends with a short stay at the New Wimbledon Studio, so you will need to be quick to catch it.