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Hard Times - Manchester Library Theatre @ Murrays' Mill, Ancoats

Published by: Caroline May on 9th Jun 2011 | View all blogs by Caroline May
Hard Times press pic 22[1].JPG

The Library Theatre Company is popping up all over Manchester before eventually moving into its new home.  The latest port-of-call on this four-year odyssey is a disused cotton mill in Ancoats, the world’s first industrial suburb.  Murrays’ Mill is a listed building in the process of being regenerated, but it was already half a century old in 1854 when Charles Dickens was writing his state-of-the-nation novel, Hard Times.

Cruel factory owner Josiah Bounderby and foolish local MP Thomas Gradgrind attempt to create a more efficient workforce by regulating human life along strictly scientific and mechanical lines - “Now, what I want is, Facts.”  In the end though their dogma destroys the people who are most precious to them.

This site-specific promenading performance is an adventure for both the theatre company and the audience, as the actors emerge from behind the proscenium arch and bring their characters out into the real world.

The evening begins with a series of installations in the dark and damp basement of Murrays’ Mill, an atmospheric space teeming with specially recruited volunteer actors.  Riotous gin houses, artisans’ workshops, mean little sitting rooms and filthy bedrooms all echo to a never-ending cacophony of horses’ hooves clattering on cobbles, rattling machinery, crying babies, hacking coughs and fiddles playing Irish jigs.  This is a genuinely immersive and intimate experience, as well as being thoroughly eerie – there’s no interaction with the audience, but the figures move round without seeming to see you – I couldn’t decide if they were ghosts, or I was.

The action then moves upstairs to a long, narrow, low-ceilinged room with bare floorboards underfoot, wooden beams above, and exposed brick walls.  Here designer Judith Croft has created a series of open-plan “compartments”, a bit like a department store for stage sets, representing the various parlours, offices, schoolrooms, gambling dens and hovels of the story.

Inevitably in turning a full-length novel into a two-and-a-half hour play something has to give.  Ironically, given the performance’s industrial location, it’s the working-class aspects of the narrative which have been shrunk to almost nothing, so the weaver Stephen Blackpool is reduced to a walk on part in the domestic drama of the middle-class Gradgrind family.  And although Charles Way’s adaptation has been written especially for this production it still feels like a conventional theatre script rather than something that would only ever work in the unique space of Murrays’ Mill. 

However the promenading aspect is the theatrical equivalent of a 3D film at the IMAX, allowing us to observe Dickens’ gallery of grotesques at very close quarters - and the acting from the professional cast members is extraordinarily good.

The ever reliable David Fleeshman portrays Gradgrind as an essentially benign if misguided figure; Verity May Henry is lively and colourful as Sissy Jupe; and Mina Anwar’s Rachel is passionate and instantly sympathetic.  Unsurprisingly, though, it’s the villains who dominate. 

Richard Heap was a memorable Magwitch at the Library Theatre several Christmases ago, but at least I was viewing him from the safety of the stalls.  His over-the-top interpretation of the loud, vulgar, bullying Bounderby is hugely enjoyable, both funny and horrific.  I was only a few feet away as he drooled over fragile young Louisa Gradgrind (Alice O’Connell), demanding a kiss like a lecherous elderly uncle, and the physical immediacy made me shudder with horror – an intense and thrilling moment.

Arthur Wilson is hilariously creepy as Bounderby’s oddball clerk Bitzer, and Gareth Cassidy’s nervous high-pitched laugh captures the latent hysteria in Tom Gradgrind.  Richard Hand’s Harthouse is a plausibly attractive playboy, and he’s practically unrecognisable as strict schoolmaster Mr M’Choakumchild.  Equally versatile are David Crellin, who doubles the rather worthy Stephen Blackpool with avuncular circus owner Mr Sleary, and Lynda Rooke as both Stephen’s drunken wife and the down-on-her-luck gentlewoman Mrs Sparsit (whose resemblance to Christina Rossetti is uncanny).

Chris Honer directs the action with his usual sure touch and gets the very best from his fabulous cast, but there are a few logistical problems with the promenading, and although I enjoyed this production I would have been even happier watching it from a seat in a theatre.

Hard Times is on until Saturday 2 July 2011
Location: Murrays’ Mill, Murray Street, Ancoats, Manchester M4 6JA
Entry time: 7.15pm

A limited number of tickets are available on the day from the temporary box office at The Midland Hotel, Peter Street between 5.30-6.30pm, cash only.

Prices: Mon-Thurs £20 (£15 conc); Fri-Sat £22
Box Office: 0843 208 6010
www.librarytheatre.com

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