13 June 2011

Trouble at mill

This evening, I'm off to the theatre. I'm seeing A View From The Bridge at the Royal Exchange, but don't be expecting a write-up. There are two reasons for this: 1) I don't have to do one as it's not press night; 2) I don't want to overshadow this here review of the Library Theatre's latest outing, Hard Times...

The Chris Honer production has been garnering a lot of interest, largely because the action takes place not in a theatre, but in Murrays' Mills in Ancoats (how achingly trendy), and is a promenade piece with an opening salvo in a separate area to set the scene. What's more, Hard Times isn't even a play, rather a novel by Charles Dickens. Goodness! As a lover of modern literature, I'll admit I don't care all that much for Dickens, and tend to agree with my Ask Ben & Clare colleague Benjamin Judge's take on the bloke on We Hate Words. However, this adaptation made Dickens accessible and, although I don't know the original, I thought the transition to "stage" worked really well.

It's an involving story of class and love and unionism and death, set in the fictional northern milltown Coketown (not actually Manchester, as is insinuated in the programme, but apparently Preston, so a proud Prestonian informed me), with plenty of colourful characters (including, pictured, the blustering Josiah Bounderby, played by Richard Heap, and poncey Londoner James Harthouse, played by Richard Hand) and a smattering of humour. There's even some impressive acrobatics during the scenes involving Mr Sleary's Horseback Circus, courtesy Arthur Wilson, Owen Gaynor and Lucy Frost. Ringmaster Sleary is suitably slurry, and actor David Crellin segues well between him and downtrodden clog-wearing weaver Stephen Blackpool, who gets some great lines: "It's a muddle I can't see clear of", being one.

If I'm totally honest, this is the first Library production I've come away from gushing with praise and recommendation. Everything seemed to come together, from the lighting challenges and sound effects to the various detailed sets scattered the length of the first floor (Bounderby's dining room, Thomas Gradgrind's study, the Gradgrind family's parlour, Harthouse's hotel bedroom, Blackpool's worker's cottage, the casino, bank and garden, and the circus big top) and authentic-feeling costumes. There are lots of bonnets and hoop skirts and shawls, and one of the key moments - Bounderby's marriage to Louisa Gradgrind (made nicely mardy by Alice O'Connell) - feels hugely atmospheric thanks to a billowing wedding gown as the not-so-happy couple sweep off to the far end of the long mill room.

If I were to gripe (and every balanced review should serve up a bit of negative with the positive, or vice versa, right?), it would be to say that following the action so literally was quite tiring for a lady of my advancing years, and the shuffling crowd does unfortunately drown out some of the dialogue. However, being so close to the proceedings and players does immerse the audience in the plot and makes for a truly intimate experience.

Hard Times is on until 2 July. A limited number of tickets are available between 5.30pm and 6.30pm for that evening's performance from the temporary box office in The Midland Hotel (cash only). See the Library website for full details.

Photo by Gerry Murray.

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