First published in The Times, Friday September 16 2016
Size isn’t everything. When David Edgar adapted Charles Dickens’s The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby for the Royal Shakespeare Company back in 1980, the production ran to eight-and-a-half hours and featured a dramatis personae of 115 speaking parts. The show, directed by Trevor Nunn, scooped major awards and transferred to Broadway, but it doesn’t take a genius to explain why Edgar’s 1000-page script has rarely been revived since.
Hard Times is a different prospect, being one of the leanest works by Dickens, and the much-admired adaptation by Stephen Jeffreys has been performed regularly over the past 30 years, including once by an ensemble of only four actors. This enjoyable revival, directed by Clare Prenton, and currently in repertory at Pitlochry, is blessed with a cast of seven so versatile that it occasionally feels as though the stage is much more heavily populated than it actually is.
The action takes place in Victorian Coketown, a fictional industrial northern English town, nicely evoked here by Becky Minto’s set of forbidding iron bars and pillars and Wayne Dowdeswell’s steely-blue lighting. Dougal Lee gives a compelling lead performance as Mr Gradgrind, the schoolmaster so wedded to cold, hard facts that he unwittingly condemns his children to a miserable future, most notably his daughter, Louisa (Hannah Howie), who ends up in a loveless marriage to the odious factory owner, Bounderby (Greg Powrie).
Prenton brings pace and clarity to Jeffreys’s script, in which narration duties are passed around among the actors as they step in and out of character. A major success of the production is the way in which the director and her ensemble strike the right balance between Dickens’s social commentary and the story’s more comical elements. The scene in which the suspicious Mrs Sparsit (Amanda Osborne) trails a distraught Louisa to the station, hoping to catch the young girl in an adulterous affair, is particularly well choreographed, with each member of the cast picking up the next strand of the account.
Though there is plenty of humour to counterbalance the scenes of hardship (including the tragic death of the mill worker Stephen Blackpool, played by Mark Elstob), the cast here wisely resists slipping into the kind of caricature that can push Dickens adaptations perilously close to pantomime. The odd slipping accent aside, the ensemble is terrific. Howie simmers as the dutiful Louisa while Lee brings an unexpected sympathy to the utilitarian Gradgrind. The scene in which the daughter confronts her father about the terrible life he has consigned her to, and his pained reaction, is the show’s poignant centre.