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Hard Times review at Viaduct Theatre, Halifax – ‘visually arresting’

Claire Storey and Howard-Chadwick n Northern Broadsides' Hard Times. Photo: Nobby Clark Claire Storey and Howard-Chadwick n Northern Broadsides' Hard Times. Photo: Nobby Clark

Hard Times has always been a bit of a hard sell. Its dour tone and uncharacteristically disjointed narrative makes it one of Charles Dickens’s least adapted and less well-loved stories. So Northern Broadsides deserves enormous credit for adding so much colour and an arresting musicality to such a potentially unpalatable concoction.

Much of this is down to director/composer Conrad Nelson and writer Deborah McAndrew’s decision to have the action introduced, framed and accompanied by a motley Greek chorus of circus performers.

A multi-tasking cast play an array of musical instruments, providing a clever contrast with the antiseptic nature of Mr Gradgrind’s utilitarian schoolhouse and the town’s impersonal mills.

This is helped enormously by Nelson’s fluid orchestration of the action and Dawn Allsopp’s designs, which meld seamlessly with the Viaduct’s dank, industrial setting. Elsewhere, the visualisation of one character’s aborted elopement, with the cast recreating a waiting steam train with lit torches and whistles, is a real masterstroke of staging.

McAndrew’s adaptation does wonders to wrestle Dickens’ disparate plot strands into a coherent whole, in the first half at least. But a lack of clear protagonists and rather too broadly brushed characters – even for Dickens – robs the story of a satisfying through-line. That said, the cast do everything asked of them with equal aplomb.

As poor, put-upon Louisa, Vanessa Schofield convincingly portrays the tragedy of a young woman whose strict upbringing has ill-equipped for the emotional rigours of adult life. Meanwhile, Howard Chadwick’s gloriously loathsome, comically blustering Mr Bounderby perfectly embodies one of Dickens’ great monsters.

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A visually arresting, laudably executed attempt at tackling one of Dickens’ gnarliest narratives