Hard Times

A thin pall of smoke hangs over the stage and the front of Oldham Coliseum’s auditorium, there is furnace orange light under the stage and the set is grey iron, clouded glass and black coal.  The cast enter striking metal on metal, wood on wood.  This is Coketown, the location for Charles Dickens’ Hard Times, but it could be anywhere in our industrial north.

This is very much a measured, thoughtful production from director Chris Lawson.  Character is built, themes are explored, lessons are learnt.  What should be the balance between facts against emotions?  How much of a say should the workers have in how a factory is run?  Are there dangers in education?  What about love?  But it’s also a long, frequently narrative text with limited drama, and at times the momentum falls away.

There is a very contemporary feel to the play.  Seven actors play nineteen characters, morphing quickly between each one to maintain a good pace.  On the whole it’s a wonderful cast performance, although I could never quite connect with the character of Tom Gradgrind, whose emotions over his own excessive gambling remained unclear.  Whilst the physical setting is clearly Victorian, the language, ideas and themes are just as relevant today; the division between owners and workers is just as wide. Josiah Bounderby could own a retail chain, a car factory or a call centre.  What is interesting of course is that when Charles Dickens wrote the story, industrialisation was new and the need to improve both self and working environment was novel.  Now we tire of the continued fight against people like Bounderby.

This is a cleverly staged play, with impressive overlays of both music and sound to evoke the industrial landscape. There’s also a good use of colour in the circus and in costumes to denote emotional states.  Well paced but at times overlong, it’s still an impressive production.

Oldham Coliseum until 3 June 2017.

Theatre lover, amateur director, occasional actor, writer.

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