When Manchester ADP invited me to be part of 'What the Dickens', 4 modern responses to Oldham Coliseums main production of Charles Dicken’s Hard Times, I was thrilled and slightly nervous. Writing a modern response for such a classic was a daunting task but I was interested to see what happened.
ADP sent over a copy of the directors script for Hard Times, it was fascinating to read the play and also all the directors notes too. It wasn’t too difficult for me to think of a scenario initially, Dickens' novel focussed on the treatment of the working poor, industrialisation and privilege, shining a light on suppression of imagination and choice for working people. Dickens also sort to expose that money is often, falsely, used as an indicator of worth, value, and morality. The current political climate gave me an easy parallel. I chose to pin the story on the welfare state, setting the play in the local Job Centre. The relationship that stood out most in the main stage play was the father daughter relationship of Mr Gradgrind and his daughter Louisa. Mr Gradgrind, the local teacher, was steadfast in his belief that children should not use their imaginations and should only ever rely on facts, without question. Louisa followed her fathers inflexible instruction and grew up to live in an unhappy marriage with local mill owner and bully, Bounderby. At the end of Hard Times, Gradgrind realises his strict instruction and control of Louisa ultimately led to her misery and unhappiness. Unlike another character Sissy, Gradgrind adopts her from a local circus but is unable to force out her imagination and free will. I decided to mirror this relationship in my short play Harder Times.
My first draft didn’t quiet capture what I wanted to say, I really wanted to focus on privilege and how it can impact on our capacity to empathise with people from different backgrounds to ourselves. I also wanted to look at how our current welfare system removes choice from people looking for work and doesn’t allow for creativity or imagination. Many people, regardless of qualifications and experience get offered zero hours, minimum wage jobs in call centres. I thought it would be interesting for Louisa to have fallen on hard times and need to access the job centre her own father, Jobsworth, oversees. In my response, Louisa enters the job centre with an air of superiority, she isn’t like ‘these’ people. In the waiting room she comes across Sissy and Stephen and we can tell she believes they are the undeserving poor, not like her, a good middle class women that’s only fallen on hard times because her architect company made her redundant (following her pregnancy).
I met with the Director of my piece, Rose Van Leyenhorst to discuss my play. Rose liked my idea and premise and we had a great discussion about class, privilege, creativity, and lack of control. Rose told me that she usually directs futuristic pieces and suggested I might have a hint of something more sinister in my play. I loved this idea, and went off to write my final draft. We talked about people possibly being killed if they were of no more value in these call centres, we talked of the parallels at the moment with sanctions and fit for work assessments and the devastating impact these decisions can have on people’s lives. I decided to use the character of Sissy to suggest this possible threat, in my play she tries, in vain, to warn Louisa and Stephen about the 'Calibration Portal' (we never find out what this really is but it is suggested that it is a place they send claimants after they have been sanctioned, a place they cannot return from). Louisa’s interactions with Della, the robotic, cold, job centre worker, finally make her realise that Sissy was right and they were not that different after all. Louisa argues with Della and much to her surprise her father is working at that centre that day and comes over to see what has happened. Unlike in Hard Times, Louisa is able to tell her father what she thinks about their privilege and his rigid views and he realises that now his daughter is in this position he may have played it wrong.
I used a couple of lines from David Cameron’s speech on welfare in 2012 at Bluewater, ‘compassion isn’t given out in welfare cheques’. At the rehearsals the actor playing ‘Jobsworth’, Shaun Hennessy, said this was his favourite line.
It was such a joy to meet the actors at rehearsals on the Sunday, they were so talented, Morag Mclean Peacock, Emily Heyworth, Helen Katamba, Adrian Palmer and Shaun Hennessy did such a great job bringing the play to life. Rose really developed the futuristic theme with great subtlety and we had a great response on the night. Seeing my play performed on such a great stage, using the Hard Times set, was a real treat and a night I’ll always remember. It was great seeing how the other writers had interpreted the play, each one was completely different. What the Dickens was a credit to Manchester ADP and to Oldham Coliseum, I’m so glad I was able to part of it.
Manchester ADP, Scripts Aloud is such a great resource for new writers, seeing and hearing my work performed has really developed my skills introduced me to so many talented actors, directors and producers and helped my career. I had a full length play reading there in January for The Loves of Others, as a result it is part of this years Greater Manchester fringe festival, playing at 53Two 18-22 July. If you have a script you are working on I urge you to send it in to Manchester ADP, you won’t regret it.