Hard times and hard adaptations

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Hard Times is a much harder story to adapt than the other works taken on by Deborah McAndrew and Conrad Nelson, but they did the best job they could have made of it.

Who called it first? Ten years ago, Accidental Death of an Anarchist was a side-show against Northern Broadsides’ main attraction of Shakespeare and other classic stories, starring or directed by Barrie Rutter, or both. And yet the husband-and-wife team of Conrad Nelson and Deborah McAndrew has grown to become an attraction in their own right, with hits from A Government Inspector and The Grand Gesture, plus a collaboration with Barrie Rutter for An August Bank Holiday Lark,with not a weak link amongst them. Now with Conrad Nelson stepping in as interim artistic director, possibly a permanent arrangement, this pair are now set to dominate the programme. So it is no surprise that after a deservedly successful run of Cyrano de Bergerac that was co-produced with the New Vic, the people of Stoke and Newcastle-under-Lyme would be queuing up for their next show.

Their latest adaptation, however, is of a book rather than a play. And as choices of books go, Charles Dickens’s Hard Times is, somewhat befitting its name, hard. The only Dickens novel that is set in the north (albeit in fictitious Coketown), the story is, in some respects, a longer version of A Christmas Carol. The central arc of the story is the journey of Thomas Gradgrind, a self-made man who attributes his success to learning facts. That, he strongly believes, is what his two children must be taught – and anything that cannot be explained with facts, such as art and love, must be suppressed.* Like Ebenezer Scrooge, his dogmaticism, well-intentioned though it may have started, comes at a heavy price for those he loves, until finally he sees the error of his ways and changes for the better. In the book, the three parts are titles “sowing”, “reaping” and “garnering”, and that summarises the story rather well.

*: Also – and this is the PhD graduate in me speaking – Thomas Grandgrind doesn’t properly understand how facts work. He doesn’t realise that who discovered a fact is a lot less important than what the fact actually is, nor does he appreciate the difference between verified evidence, academic consensus and unchallenged rhetoric. This doesn’t really have any bearing on the story, but had he learned the discipline of knowing how to proceed on incomplete evidence, perhaps it would have saved some trouble later.

The challenge with a stage adaptation of this book is its sheer complexity. Gradgrind’s two children both have major stories of their own: Tom, damaged by his upbringing, turning bad; and Louisa is arm-twisted into Grandgrind’s associate Josiah Bounderby, also a self-made man who started from nothing and takes this as justification to be self-important to everyone (degree of nothingness started from may differ from that described by him). Then there is Sissy, a circus girl enrolled at the local school sort-of adopted by Gradgrind as a lesson to Louisa of what not to be. Meanwhile, there is a much wider story of unrest in the union, understandable given Bounderby’s greed, but the union are far from angels, with their vitriol directed instead at mild-mannered Stephen Blackpool who just wants to stay out of things and be with the woman he loves, Rachael. And that’s only half the characters. And this is meant to be one of Dickens’s shorter novels. Heaven knows how complicated the longer ones get.

So it’s a tough job to make something this multi-threaded work as a play. As a result, perhaps inevitably, this doesn’t have a same focus or engagement that previous McAndrew scripts have. But she still does arguably the best possible job you could do squeezing this into two and a bit hours on stage. The play zips through mini-scenes, but never feels rushed and rarely feels like something is skipped. The characters are done well, and I was quite impressed how the cast of ten doubled some parts which I wouldn’t otherwise had guessed was the same person. The only plot thread that felt a bit out on limb, at least to start with, was Tom and Rachael’s story, although that felt more like part of the play as the story went on. Even so, it’s a struggle to follow the story if you don’t know the plot of the book – this is one of the few times where I would recommend reading the character descriptions in the programme first.

The strongest touch of the play is the bit Northern Broadsides does best – the sequence at the beginning of the play and elsewhere when the entire cast play the visiting circus. Although the circus does not appear again until the end of the story, one of the touches I liked the most was Sissy – it seems you can take a girl out of the circus, but you can’t take the circus out of a girl. But I wonder if Northern Broadsides missed a trick by not making more of it. The circus people appear at various points in the play, but it’s not clear why. I wonder if this would have been handled better as a story within a story, with the circus people telling the tale of one of their number. I don’t know the details of how that you work, but it would allow the Broadsiders to play to their strengths the most.

Apart from all being plays, the other thing that originals adapted by McAndrew was that they all had a clear focus and central plot, and that clarity was always carried over into the adaptations. Hard Times, for better or worse, has to have a far more disparate plot. But it’s maybe unfair to compare this against all the other easier adaptations, and instead we should maybe think about how well the and Nelson brought this hard adaptation to the stage in spite of the challenges. Hard Times may not endure in people’s minds the same way Cyrano does, but when you think about what was made of this under the toughest of circumstances, it continues to show what this pair can make of whatever challenges they take on.

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