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Review: Hard Times

Mill is a boon to Dickens drama

Murrays' Mills, Ancoats, Manchester

    Alice O’Connell and Richard Heap watched closely by audience members
    Alice O’Connell and Richard Heap watched closely by audience members

    THIS classic Dickens tale of northern industrial misery is brought to life in a grim Victorian mill.

    The Library Theatre Company - currently homeless due to renovations - has taken refuge in the 200-year-old Murrays' Mills, on the edge of Manchester city centre, to stage this remarkable walkabout adaptation of Hard Times. The venue is more than a novelty. It is integral to a production built around its brick walls, steel pillars and wooden floors.

    If you do not mind a decent walk following the action across a vast upper floor, then this could well be the most original and engaging thing you will see this year.

    We are introduced to the squalor of Dickensian life with a pre-performance basement tableau that includes a dying child, a cholera warning, a couple sharing a humble bread and cheese meal, the rumble of machinery and a coffin maker hammering away.

    And then upstairs to the show itself. As is the way with site-specific theatre, there is a marvellous drift into the actual performance. One minute we are milling around, the next, there is the bustle and commotion as the actors barge through the crowd. The lighting and the sounds now become our cues to move.

    The story boils down to a loveless marriage, class war, trouble at mill, workers revolting and cads getting their comeuppance. The characters, already larger than life on Dickens's pages, somehow expand to fill the entire mill. There are some impressive performances, not just from the principals, but also from a crew of community volunteers.

    Director Chris Honer neatly balances the darkness and the humour of Hard Times, cranking up the pace in the longer second half and keeping members of the audience literally on their toes as the performers switch stages. There is a lot to cram in.

    Alice O'Connell is bewitching as Louisa Gradgrind, daughter of a well-meaning though seriously misguided headmaster (David Fleeshman). She is condemned to a life of misery with the loathsome self-made millionaire, Josiah Bounderby (Richard Heap). There are real tears in her eyes when she finally confronts her father for forcing the marriage upon her.

    All of this, and a circus finale too. Magnificent entertainment, but be warned - tickets are hard to come by.

    Library Theatre

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