Compass Theatre’s excellent re-staging of Hard Times, following on last year’s stunning Moby Dick, emphasises the consummate skill with which the company handles adaptations of classic novels.
Stephen Jeffreys’ intelligent and well-balanced adaptation reduces Charles Dickens’ novel to a cast of four. Hard Times contains fewer eccentrics than many of the more popular novels, and the reduction in cast helps to push the emphasis away from “Dickensian” characters towards theme, symbolism and narrative.
Director Neil Sissons establishes the circus as a factor at the very start and the conflict between fact and imagination, between entertainment and industry, underpins the whole production. Christopher Madin’s perfectly judged music score contrasts the circus organ with the harsh rhythms of heavy industry and Sleary, the showman, emerges as an eloquent spokesman for the life of the spirit.
The plot concerns the downfall of the masters of fact, Gradgrind and Bounderby, who dominate the industrial town of Coketown. Gradgrind’s school deals only in fact, an education which ironically, seems likely to destroy the lives of his own children. In a story crowded with incident, the strongest sub-plot concerns the sufferings of Stephen Blackpool, the weaver too moderate for his colleagues, too outspoken for his employer.
Hard Times works splendidly when all the resources of theatre come together. The adaptation preserves much of Dickens’ prose, dramatic, poetic, philosophical and funny. The narrative, picked up in turn by all four actors, is precisely pointed by music, with Jason Taylor’s atmospheric lighting shifting the focus of attention around Neil Irish’s looming industrial set. The less naturalistic sequences have their own magic, the frantic night journey of the busybody Mrs. Sparsit in pursuit of a supposed adulteress being an inspired creation.
Occasionally the ordinary dialogue scenes lack sparkle: there are perhaps too many evenly paced duologues and, inevitably, the actors bring some characters to life more vividly than others. Michael Onslow, for instance, revelling in the monumental self-importance of Bounderby and touchingly grotesque as Sleary, finds little in the bored man about town Harthouse.
All four actors, however, show enormous commitment and versatility. Chris Porter memorably differentiates father and son Gradgrind and finds the right notes for the father’s modulation into humanity. Naomi Wattis is the rather conventional heroine, but, given an eccentric old woman role, delights in the unmasking of the blustering Bounderby. Sonia Beck has perhaps the widest range of all in her half-dozen roles, with a standout performance as the fastidious and snobbish Mrs Sparsit.
- Ron Simpson