Alice Burns

Hard Times at The Playhouse: A Review

Another brilliant production by Northern Broadsides, adapted for stage by Deborah McAndrew is now hosted in Liverpool’s Playhouse from Tuesday 27th March till Saturday 31st March. A story of conflicting ideals, repression and longing, Northern Broadsides brings Dickens’ well-loved classic  into the dazzling spotlight of the stage.

Image courtesy of Nobby Clark

The play follows the lives of the inhabitants of Coketown, a generic Northern mill town, possibly based on nearby Preston, where Dicken’s visited fleetingly in 1854 to enhance his knowledge of the lower classes. Staying remarkably true to the novel itself, the production tells the story of Mr Gradgrind, a wealthy middle-class gentleman, who also runs a local school. Within this system, he imposes his strict regime of facts and figures, dismissing any emotion, creativity and imagination from every pupil – including his two children, Tom and Louisa. But will Mr Gradgrind be able to maintain all this when the circus comes to town?

Victoria Brazier as Mrs Sparsit and Darren Kuppan as Bitzer, Image courtesy of Nobby Clark

Amid the colourful chaos of the circus, the daughter of a clown, Sissy Jupe, adds a splash of colour to the lives of the Gradgrinds, especially Louisa who feels her strict upbringing leaves something to be desired. An intelligent girl unlike her brother, Louisa is coerced into marrying a capitalist old banker, the revolting self-made man, Mr Bounderby. These lives, intertwined with the hawk-eyed meddling of Bitzer and Mrs Sparsit and the selfish batchelor escapades of Tom Gradgrind with the enigmatic Mr Harthouse; ensure Hard Times offers the rich characterisation we come to expect of Dickens, combined with the charming pandemonium of the circus.

Venessa Schofield as Louisa and Howard Chadwick as Mr Bounderby, Image courtesy of Nobby Clark

Amid this frenzy of circus energy comes a stockpile of music and jugglers to clowns and fire-eaters, brightening the bleak reality of life in Coketown. Directed and composed by Conrad Nelson, Hard Times provides a thought-provoking satire on the social transformations of industrial Britain, whilst maintaining a consumable lightness to keep audiences dazzled. In spite of the relatively small casting, each member offers a bounty of talent. Performing with unrelenting vigour, enthusiasm and energy throughout the night, they do justice to Dickens’ ever-sharp social commentary on the plight of the Victorian lower classes.

Millworkers Union, Image courtesy of Nobby Clark

Is life a circus? Certainly not for Britain’s 17th century mill workers, who’s union strikes for fair pay and better working conditions provide a sharp reminder of our own positions in 21st century Britain. Let’s just be thankful Mr Gradgrind’s unrelenting education system doesn’t extend beyond the fiction realm of Dickens, who, like the lightness of the circus, manages to “grace this dreary world with a little artistry.”


Tickets available online at or at the Box Office on 0151 709 4776, Monday to Saturday 11am to 6pm. Prices from £10.

You may also like...

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *