Star rating – 8/10
The Library Theatre are taking the opportunity, in their current homeless state, to create exciting projects in interesting locations, the first of which is this classic Dickens tale of life for both workers and masters in the grim industrial setting of Coketown. The venue for the play is fabulous in itself, Murray’ Mills in the heart of Ancoats. It is a buried gem, which was a fully working mill from the late eighteenth century right up until it closed it doors in the late 1950s. I wasn’t aware of its existence before the Library Theatre temporarily took it over, and there really could not be a more apt setting for Hard Times.
The action starts with a staggered entrance to the ground floor of the mill by the audience. The series of tableaus and scenes presented which I presume act merely as scene setters, here are a bit confusing and the production could really have done without them. But then the audience is taken up to the first floor of the mill, and it is obvious that this is going to be a bit special. The director Chris Honer, and designer Judith Croft have done a wonderful job of using the unique location to great effect.
Dickens tale is of Thomas Gradgrind, who brings his two children, Tom and Louisa, up to appreciate the accumulation of facts and knowledge, and the power of rational thinking, to the exclusion of matters of the heart, soul, and imagination. His friend Josiah Bounderby delights in telling how he was dragged up from a gutter and raised himself to be a successful businessman. He is loud and coarse, and has designs on Louisa. Her father is pleased with the sense and rationality of the marriage proposal made to his daughter by Bounderby, never considering what her sentiments may really be. Sissy Jupe is a poor girl from a circus who is taken pity on by Gradgrind, and used as another way to demonstrate how his successful his educational methods are. But she becomes a counterbalance to his methods, and a reminder of how emotions and feelings cannot be ignored. Dickens also shows the differing lives of the classes in sharp relief, with one of Bounderby’s mill workers, Stephen Blackpool, having a particularly hard and unfair time.
All the actors do an amazing job of being able to block out the audience all around and among them, and concentrating faultlessly on their performances. It is really worthy of great praise all round. But there are particularly stand out contributions from Richard Heap as the larger than life and very amusing Josiah Bounderby; from Lynda Rooke as his housekeeper and general busybody Mrs Sparsit; and from David Crellin as both the unfortunate Stephen Blackpool, and the circus master Mr Sleary.
The audience has to move quickly as the scene change, sometimes a little too quickly really, as it takes longer than expected to move the whole audience about, and so they sometimes miss out on some of the action. There is some seating, although not always enough for everyone, and the mill is not the warmest of places. But the production is a delight, and well worth braving the joy of chemical toilets and a bit of standing about for.