HARD TIMES. By Charles Dickens. Clwyd Theatr, Mold and Compass theatre, touring
From its opening scene, in which Thomas Gradgrind of Coketown pontificates about teaching "these boys and girls nothing but Facts," Dickens's 1854 novel bubbles with relevance.
Not only is the main plot of how Gradgrind marries his young daughter, Louisa, to his friend Bounderby, 30 years her senior, suggestive of abuse, but also the Utilitarian philosophy espoused in the worship of "Facts" seems chillingly to anticipate Thatcherism.
Two stage versions of the book illustrate the various insights that dramatising the text can yield. At Theatr Clwyd, Tim Baker directs his own new adaptation. "I wanted to go beyond the usual small-cast productions of Dickens and see if Hard Times would work as a play," he says.
Instead of quoting Dickens's descriptions about Coketown, Baker's version lets the social background emerge through the characters. Using nine actors for the main parts, he also uses puppets, dummies and "other non-flesh-and-blood devices" to represent less important characters such as the circus proprietor Sleary. "Because the book contrasts the dryness of the Utilitarian philosophy with the imagination of the circus," says Baker, "it seems appropriate to ask the audience to use their imaginations to make the marionettes come alive."
In rehearsals, he adds: "We've discovered how some of the characters - such as Gradgrind and Louisa - change and develop during the story. At the start they're a bitone-dimensional in Dickens, then they gradually become more and more human."
By contrast, Compass theatre's touring production of Stephen Jeffreys's adaptation uses only four actors to play all the roles, which makes the point that you don't need large casts to take on a big story. Neil Sissons, who co-directs with Gareth Tudor Price, says: "Using a small cast means that you emphasise the fairytale, fable-like quality of the book - the audience have to use their imaginations, which is what the story is about."
The sheer theatricality of this is also a reminder that Dickens wrote the novel soon after he had completed a tour of public readings in which he had played all the characters in his stories. One of Dickens's strongest themes, that of the dysfunctional family, is also enhanced "when the same actor plays Gradgrind and his son".
With regard to the relationship between young Louisa and old Bounderby, Sissons is clear that "our sensitivity to the idea of abuse is alerted the minute Bounderby asks Louisa for a kiss". In rehearsals, "your flesh crawls", he says. "It's an example of how a classic can change its meaning depending on the decade in which it is performed, with your viewpoint altered by current sensibilities. It's very pertinent and very uncomfortable." It also heightens the way audiences see the treatment of all the children in the play.
Aleks Sierz Theatr Clwyd until October 21 (box office: 01352 755114);Compass tours until December 16 (details: 0114 275 5328)