By Charles Dickens, adapted by Stephen Jeffreys
Review by Patrick Neylan
Not all BLT members regard the annual Youth Group show as a ‘proper’ BLT production. This is a shame, as it’s a chance to see some of the talent that could be driving our theatre in the years to come. Directors often fret about the availability of younger actors, yet some of them ignore the talent pool lurking right under their noses.
As with last year’s show, this performance was well-attended, but mostly (at least on the night I watched) with unfamiliar faces: parents and relatives of the performers.
Admittedly, it’s not the easiest sell: anyone who has attended school performances by their beloved offspring will be familiar with the mumbled lines, the warbled singing and, in desperate cases, the hesitant scraping of violins. It’s not an experience to be endured except out of love and duty. Such an evening being played out to the theme of Dickens’ ‘grim-up-north’ novel evokes visions of a misery only allayed by the assurance that there will be no medley of hits by Abba, Queen or Steps.
If that dread that kept you away, then your fears were unfounded because this was a professionally produced and acted performance (with not a song or a violin in sight).
Hard Times was a witty and engaging production that enabled the Youth Group to show what they had learned over the year and how they had developed their existing abilities, with each performer having the chance to showcase their talent without unbalancing the show. The directors (Jessica-Ann Jenner and Pauline Armour) did not have the luxury of choosing their cast; they had to find a play with parts for everyone in the Youth Group and nobody else, with a female-dominated group performing a play with a 50-50 male-to-female cast.
In line with the wider trend in theatre, BLT is often open-minded about women playing men’s roles (vice-versa is less common). The gender-bending in Hard Times was necessary given the female-dominated make-up of the Youth Group, and on the whole it worked well. The directors also had to compromise on age, with many actors rising to the challenge of playing characters several decades older than themselves.
Eve Chaplin handled the role of Gradgrind assurance, considering he is a classic Dickens character: a philistine who opens the play with the well-known lecture to the schoolchildren on the importance of education being solely about facts. Josh Williams-Ward took over the role later, but less prominently – perhaps the directors acknowledged that he is already well-known to BLT audiences and wanted to give others in the group an opportunity to take centre stage. If so, I’d say that was a good call.
Gradgrind’s principal victim as he lectures the hapless schoolchildren is Sissy Jupe, played with good-natured naïveté by Jade Bostock. Her discomfort presages the discomfort of most of the characters, who suffer hard times that are emotional and social rather than economic, under the soulless practicality of their stern, unyielding overlords.
Next to be ground down are Gradgrind’s own children, the devoted brother and sister Tom (Jemima Ress and Raphael Phillips) and Louisa (Jasmin Nancekivell-Smith and Aneira Knight), who are separated when the latter is married off to a man three decades her senior. Shorn of his soulmate, Tom loses his moral compass and descends into criminality.
Louisa’s husband, Bounderby, is as grimly practical as her father, offering a future of dreary misery. He was played, appropriately dourly and with an added dose of hypocrisy, by Sadie Saunder and Ali Haydar.
Lauren Fraser did a good job of handling the part of James Harthouse, who awakens Louisa romantically. The pair did an impressive job given the obvious difficulty of a gender mis-match. Similarly, Freya Collins as the agitator Slackbridge and Alicia Foreman as the modest worker Blackpool handled their male roles with impressive assurance. Elsewhere, Charlotte Lees stood out as the occasionally prim, occasionally spiky Mrs Sparsit.
It’s impossible to cite every member of the cast, although the ensemble worked well to hold the play together with most of the actors spending nearly all their time on stage. The necessarily minimalist set, with Victor Poland’s appropriately gloomy and atmospheric lighting, enabled the narrative to switch quickly from scene to scene while enabling the actors to inhabit and own their own spaces.
Last year’s production, while well put together, featured pieces seemingly written as youth exercises. I was impressed, but not really entertained. What I particularly liked about Hard Times was that this was a show – by which I mean it was an adult production to be seen and enjoyed on its own merits rather than a performance aimed at the players’ friends and relatives. As a result, those lucky enough to see it enjoyed a proper evening’s entertainment.