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Review: Hard Times at Liverpool Playhouse ***1/2

Roll up roll up for Northern Broadsides’ latest visit to Liverpool, with a new production – a fresh version of Dickens’ Hard Times – and a new boss at the helm.

So farewell Barrie Rutter, and welcome Wirral’s Conrad Nelson, long-time Broadsider as actor, director and composer, who takes on the last two of these three duties in this Deborah McAndrew adaptation of the great Victorian chronicler’s northern novel.

Mind you, while Rutter may be absent in body, he’s not absent in spirit, channelled by Howard Chadwick who is reassuringly bluff and boomingly bombastic as entitled mill-owner Josiah Bounderby.

Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South was set in the made-up mill town of Middleton, and her contemporary’s Hard Times is fixed in the fictional cottonopolis of Coketown, where grey industrialists and worn mill hands work warily alongside one another.

It’s a world populated by a Dickensian carnival of the grotesque, the dispossessed, the disappointed, and, in mill worker Steven Blackpool (Anthony Hunt) and his platonic love Rachael (Victoria Brazier), the honest and good of heart.

Andrew Price as Thomas Gradgrind. Photos by Nobby Clark

At the heart of the story is Thomas Gradgrind (Andrew Price), a man who, in his certainty that facts and reason are all, knows the price of everything but the value of nothing.

Imposing his utilitarian teaching on his own children he leaves them ill-equipped to deal with the realities of life, relationships or questions of morality. Son Tom becomes a self-absorbed carouser, gambler and thief, and dutiful daughter Louisa struggles with awareness her own lack of feeling and imagination.

Gradgrind’s cold monochrome world is juxtaposed in Broadsides’ production with the warmth and colour of Sleary’s circus, which also becomes an otherworldly symbol of imagination, dreaming and freedom as its tumblers and musicians entertain under designer Dawn Allsopp’s big top of mill machinery and ribbon.

As with all Broadsides’ shows, Hard Times is coherently told, and the faults and foibles of its characters are writ large in some solidly engaging performances.

But despite being the shortest of his novels, this is still Dickens we are talking about, and McAndrew’s script runs to two-and-a-half hours plus interval, cramming in the narrative through a series of short scenes which make it feel busy but also rather stilted at times.

The circus, led by Paul Barnhill’s ringmaster Sleary and his siren call of “run away with us tonight”, is a welcome but all-too fleeting antidote to the idea that it’s grim up north.

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