WhatsOnStage ****

Written at a time when the author was himself going through ‘hard times’, Charles Dickens’ harsh indictment of the Industrial Revolution first appeared serialised in weekly instalments in his own magazine Household World in the spring of 1854. This allowed him to alter the course of the narrative according to public whim, and to develop deep and intricate plot lines for a huge cast of characters. Hard Times then, focusing on the stark contrast between the lives and the fortunes of the factory owners and their work force, and set in the industrialised north of Victorian England, becomes a tale of epic proportion. Stephen Jeffrey’s inspired 1982 adaptation rose to the challenge of retelling this story on a more economic scale - with just four actors - at a time of recession when it would simply not have been possible to mount a full scale production requiring a cast of around 20 people. It is apposite that here, in 2011, in a similar financial climate, and facing the same constraints, the hugely talented and inventive Creative Cow have chosen Jeffrey’s adaptation as their 11th production, and are currently touring to rural communities and arts venues around the south west. As we have come to expect of ‘The Cows’, this production is fresh and exciting, and the four strong cast work untiringly, representing a startling array of characters and sharing narration duties to move the plot along. Katherine Senior shows a great talent for physical comedy, giving two show-stopping turns as Mrs Gradgrind, and the conniving Mrs Sparsit, and Lizzie Dive delivers fine contrasting performances as the emotionally repressed and somewhat tragic Louisa Gradgrind, and a delightful caricature in Mrs Pegler. Jack Hulland plays a suitably thunderous Josiah Bounderby, doubling as the languorous James Harthouse, and the lisping circus manager Mr Sleary, while Jonathan Parish plays father and son Gradgrind, and young Tom, and the unfortunate and downtrodden Stephen Blackpool, with great aplomb. Indeed all work well together, and sometimes with the subtlest change in tone or stance, shift effortlessly in and out of an array of larger than life characters. The direction, by Amanda Knott, is tight, and makes imaginative use of a very sparse set, littered with the occasional piece of furniture or prop, step ladders and a wooden plank, which are shifted around creating an endless variety of settings from circus to tavern, school room to mine shaft. Only very occasionally does this clever device feel slightly overdone. Once or twice perhaps, the attention is snatched back from the engrossing storyline to wonder why the characters are speaking to each other a-top step ladders. However, the performances are so engaging that these momentary lapses are not allowed to last long. Devon-based Creative Cow continues to promote and present top notch theatre around the UK and Hard Times is a fine example of their work. This tour ends with a short stay at the New Wimbledon Studio, so you will need to be quick to catch it. - by Simon Cole


Remote Goat ****

A full-length story by arguably the most verbose novelist in the English language, has to be comprehensively butchered before it will satisfy on stage, the appetite of theatregoers for two hours or more of nourishing entertainment. But writer Stephen Jeffreys has carved & jointed this 'dickens' of a good yarn conscientiously. He has kept faith with Dickens's original story & sensitively compresses the time-span with cleverly integrated narration using the author's text. Complementing the successful adaptation, director Amanda Knott has injected her signature vitality & fun, using four actors from her versatile (to say the least) Creative Cow Theatre Company & retained the commendable talents of lighting designer, Jason Addison & of particular note in this production, sound designer Richard Price. To tell the harrowing story of Hard Times, this adaptation casts 19 characters, fairly shared between, alphabetically, Jack Hulland, Jonathan Parish, Katherine Senior (a founder member of the company) & Lizzy Dive. These actors share equal credit for taking their patrons on a lively excursion through the imaginary fog & soot of gloomy 'Coketown' ligh,tening the murky way with humour and a hugely amusing variety of Dickens's egocentric personalities. This reviewer, too dismissive of long wordy books, has not read the novel but could follow - with a little concentration - the complex story enacted here with remarkable clarity. A play that requires attention is always most satisfying. Deep & thought-provoking drama is much up my street but it's always good to laugh & relish the enthusiasm of performers who entertain for the sheer joy of pleasing the crowd. The audience I joined in the Public Hall at Budleigh Salterton included theatregoers who frequently travel to see West End shows of superlative quality in London, yet are dedicated fans of Creative Cow - & with good, discerning reason. The quality of large scale productions differs from low budget, struggling enterprises in the provinces, merely by the amount of money expended. Quality of performances are closely comparable because the commitment of actors who are less concerned with fame & fortune, can sustain equally high standards of work, for their own self-respect & love of their art. Hard Times is the fourth production this reviewer has enjoyed, that benefited by Ms Knott's unerring guidance. The unifying factor in these four plays has been energetic, imaginative execution & valuefor- ticket-price entertainment, the hallmarks most valued in any director & repeatedly proved reliable from Amanda Knott. With a couple more single dates on tour, the 'Cows' will be herded into the southwest of London for a week at The New Wimbledon Studios. These hard times we are living through can be borne better with an enjoyable live performance of Charles Dickens's 'Hard Times.' Embrace it while you can.


The Stage

Published Thursday 3 November 2011 at 11:51 by Anne Broom

A quartet of actors playing nearly 20 diverse characters recreate the sights and sounds of late 1830s industrial Coketown in this lively production of Stephen Jeffreys’ adaptation of the novel by Charles Dickens. Director Amanda Knott challenges her actors who credibly and instantaneously switch in and out of character. Sharing narration while keeping the piece moving, they maintain focus throughout innumerable tightly-played scenes. A minimalist set allows maximum content as with basic costume and props, stepladders and a wooden plank are cleverly used to create a variety of scenes whether schoolroom, circus or garden, while a dramatic mine-shaft discovery is credibly contrived. Underpinning and linking the action Richard Price’s sound design creates mood while helping the imagination flesh out this story of social and industrial inequality. Played in the New Theatre’s intimate space, every nuance, glance and mannerism is carefully weighed. Tight direction draws out gentle comedy and underlying pathos, yet ensures the piece never descends to the melodramatic. In a production that engages and entertains there are many memorable skilfully delineated characters. Katherine Senior’s maliciously smug housekeeper Mrs Sparsit maintains aristocratic bearing and expressions of hauteur and disdain with care. Lizzy Dive is appealingly sincere as aged Mrs Pegler. In contrast she plays tragic Louisa Gradgrind from childhood to maturity with admirable conviction. Jack Hulland is an energetic and opinionated Bounderby and a warm-hearted and expansive Sleary, while Jonathan Parish moves with clarity between invidious schoolmaster Gradgrind, weak-willed Tom Gradgrind and heroic mill-hand Stephe Blackpool.


Blackmore Vale

BLEAK and "relentlessly gloomy" were just some of the descriptions I heard during the interval of Creative Cow's inventive and hugely enjoyable production at Tisbury's Victoria Hall on Saturday night. Bleak - but enjoyable? Exactly so. It is full of the grim lives of the down-trodden workers in the "dark satanic mills" of Dickens' brutal Coketown, where greedy mill owners hold the whip hand. Gradgrind is a good man who learns, by a very hard route, and almost too late, that his emphasis on "facts, facts, facts" over imagination has destroyed the life of one of his children and offers no salvation for the other. But set against the oppression of the workers and the suppression of the spirit of the young Gradgrinds, there is Sissy Jupe, the poor stroller's daughter who is not very good at facts but has instinctive kindness and natural intelligence. There is loyal Rachel and hard-working, "muddled" Stephen, two good people who love each other in a cruel world. There is the colour and energy and freedom of the circus and the travelling players. And threading through the darkness and misery, there are a lot of laughs. Using Stephen Jeffreys' 1982 adaptation - written at a time when financial constraints limited the number of actors a company could afford - Creative Cow's versatile and talented cast of four bring to vivid life 19 of the most memorable characters in this often blackly funny tale. Jonathan Parish is variously the decent but wrong-headed Gradgrind, his feckless son Tom and gentle, doomed Stephen. Lizzy Dive is Louisa Gradgrind, a mysterious old woman, Stephen's drunken foul-mouthed wife, the chairman of the union meeting and a trapeze artist. Katherine Senior is Sissy, Rachel, Mrs Gradgrind, a mill worker and the marvellously ghastly Mrs Sparsit, arch-snob and curtain-twitching snoop. And Jack Hulland uses his chameleon skills to morph seamlessly from the dreadful hypocrite Bounderby and the ambitious bank porter Bitzer, to the warm-hearted circus manager, the firebrand union official and flashy Harthouse, the louche incomer whose friendship with both Tom and Louisa triggers the climax. Once again, we live in hard times - never more so for the arts. Creative Cow has not lost grants, because it has never had them - it lives off its ticket sales and donations from supporters. The audience at Tisbury supported a raffle with proceeds going to the theatre company. Yet what this production shows is the boundless inventiveness of the arts - and the ability of the human soul to triumph over adversity. Dickens would surely have loved it! There is one last chance to see Hard Times tonight, Friday, at the Marine Theatre, Lyme Regis.