Northern Broadsides are back at The Lowry with their latest production of Hard Times, the classic Northern story written by Charles Dickens. Adapting it for the stage, this production is set in Coketown, a town where imagination is forbidden.
Focusing on the story of Thomas Gradgrind who will not permit fanciful thoughts in his school or his home, he is struck with the challenge of protecting the children from ‘corrupting influences’ when the circus is in town.
I spoke to award-winning British playwright Deborah McAndrew about her latest adaptation for the stage. “My husband Conrad, the director of the play and I had been talking about doing a Dickens novel for a while and Hard Times is the Northern book,” she said. “It is set in the North and has that identity. Also it is the shortest of the Dickens novels which is better for the stage and only has two plots that intertwine.”
Dickens is certainly a challenge to adapt for the stage but he is also a writer renowned for his wonderfully crafted characters. “It is a story with a very powerful and poignant argument about creative education and the necessity of the arts in the education of children,” she said.
Coketown are stripped of all colour and fun as it is a place without music, literature, art or theatre. Deborah is passionate about the importance of arts in education and feels that although it is a play set in mid-19th century Victorian England, it still resonates with today.
“There was a publication in the BBC recently about arts provision in school and 40% of high schools in the UK said that they had reduced their arts offer in the last five years,” Deborah explained. “The play is completely relevant, how we value our arts and what their role is in education is the argument Dickens was trying to teach and we are still teaching it today.”
However it’s not all doom and gloom, Deborah explained how she has approached the piece by seeking the light in it, especially with the vibrancy of the circus that top and tale the show. “The circus are so theatrically engaging, and I think aside from just being a theatrical device, it is a constant reminder of what is being pushed out of our central character Louisa’s young mind,” Deborah explained.
“Dickens was very interested in fairy tales and he was very keen that the imagination, graces and delights of the arts was open and available to all,” she said. “Not just for their education, but for their comfort, solace and mental health.” Deborah describes the show as being an experiment about what would happen to children if they weren’t allowed stories, music, poetry or drawings. At the heart of the story, there are two children that are really damaged by their lack of access to the arts, and their development and mental health really suffer.
Deborah McAndrew’s witty adaptation of the great Northern novel is both a thought-provoking and funny portrayal of repression and longing.
Opening at The Lowry on the 6th of March in their Quays theatre, tickets can be found here.