The Idea that hard financial facts are the measure of all things, and greed and self-interest the only significant drivers of human action, is hardly unfamiliar to modern audiences.
Hard Times | Pitlochry Festival Theatre | Rating ****
There was a time, though, when we thought we had banished that inadequate account of human society for good; and if any single person could be credited with laying the ground for that moment of enlightenment, it was the great storyteller Charles Dickens, whose mighty tragi-comic novels comprehensively exposed the absurdity and cruelty of a mid-19th-century world that valued people by the colour of their money, rather than their common humanity.
First published in 1854, Hard Times is one of the most brilliant and startling of all Dickens’s novels; a short, fierce, poetic and damning tale about the leading citizens of Coketown, a place built on coke, coal, and harsh commercial imperatives. And without theatrical fireworks,
Stephen Jeffreys’s fine 1982 adaptation – almost three hours long, but always absorbing, as it alternates between action and moments of narrative – does full justice to the story of the utilitarian school-owner Gradgrind, his ghastly business colleague Bounderby, his lovely daughter Louisa, and their friends, employees and associates.
Clare Prenton’s Pitlochry production – featuring a strikingly fluent, handsome and adaptable pillared set by Becky Minto – has that same quality of quiet craftsmanship, tightly focussed on the telling of a vital tale. And with Hannah Howie as a fine and moving Louisa, browbeaten into a loveless marriage with Bounderby – and Dougal Lee, Greg Powrie and Mark Elstob in eloquent support as Gradgrind, Bounderby, and the poor workman Stephen Blackpool, also unhappily married – Dickens’s story emerges as an eloquent plea for humanity in a heartless world; for a way of life that makes time for love, laughter, and learning, and for people to listen not only to the click of the cash-till, but to the music of their own hearts.
In repertoire at Pitlochry Festival Theatre until 14 October.