Reviews – Hard Times

Hard TimesSome reviews of the hugely successful run of Way's adapation for the Library Theatre at Murrays Mills in 2012.

Hard Times“The mills lead us to no further destination than death” says the weaver Stephen Blackpool in Charles Dickens’ novel, set among the misery and ignorance of Coketown, where fortunes are made out of cotton and bodies are broken at the loom.

For the poor, defeated workers struggling to organise themselves, Blackpool is right. But for the modern theatregoer, the journey to Murrays’ Mills (which still operated into the late 1950s) is rewarding, thanks to this imaginative and enjoyable promenade production by the Library Theatre.

The ignorance displayed is not on the part of the workers, who survive in appalling conditions, briefly glimpsed in an atmospheric curtain-raiser sequence. Rather, it comes from a man who should know better: the headmaster Thomas Gradgrind, who sacrifices his children’s happiness and better selves to an education that values facts over poetry and duty over love; he marries his daughter Louisa off to cotton magnate Josiah Bounderby, a man who weaves his own fictions.

Neatly filleted by playwright Charles Way, with a fine eye for both the comic and dramatic possibilities of the novel, it is an evening as uneven in acting and staging as the mill floor itself, but urgent and charged. There are two quietly explosive scenes between Alice O’Connell’s damaged Louisa and her unseeing father (David Fleeshman). Director Chris Honer does little with the space other than use it as a series of separate stages, and though there is a nagging sense that being inside the mill cocoons us from the realities of an industrial town, the walk to and from the site in Ancoats provides a stark reminder that Manchester itself was once “cottonopolis” and that Dickens’s rich fiction was grounded in grim fact.