IMAGINE a world where imagination is forbidden in Northern Broadsides' witty new adaptation of Charles Dickens's great northern novel, Hard Times.

Coketown is such a place, one where Thomas Gradgrind will not permit fanciful thoughts in his school or his home. What effect will this policy have on his own children, Tom and Louisa? How can he protect them from corrupting influences, especially when the circus comes to town?

The husband-and-wife team of Broadsides artistic director Conrad Nelson and playwright Deborah McAndrew ask these questions in a touring production that visits the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, from tomorrow and West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds, next month.

"We'd talked about doing a Dickens novel for a while, and thinking about which one we should do, this was the one even though a lot of people are not enamoured by it, but I love it," says Deborah. "I had to convince people that it's not a grim book, though ironically some people have said the adaptation is not grim enough, but we wanted to have a lightness to how we did it."

Broadsides present a tale of satanic mills and Sleary's Circus, suppressed love and seduction, social mores and sharply observed exaggerated characters. "Our imaginative leap with the circus works really well, with us doing the play in a cross between a circus tent and an industrial building," says Conrad. "It's in this vibrant three-ringed arena that we set our play and where we celebrate life, risk, adventure and the power of imagination."

At a time of cutbacks in arts funding and science increasingly holding sway over the arts on the school curriculum, Dickens's story is pertinent anew. "Art and the imagination in culture are extremely important, as ever, and Dickens knew that a loss of cultural input was potentially disastrous, with the Gradgrind children being fed only science and facts," says Conrad.

"They're programmed like computers, but they're not pieces of machinery, but human beings with complexities," says Deborah. "But children who have been educated in the arts have all sorts of advantages because they produce fully rounded people who develop empathy, build confidence and learn skills of communication."

Looking ahead, Deborah's adaptation of Dickens's A Christmas Carol, premiered at Hull Truck Theatre last winter, will be staged by West Yorkshire Playhouse in December and January, directed again by Amy Leach, the Playhouse's associate director.

Hull Truck, in turn, will perform Deborah's take on Oliver Twist, commissioned originally for the Bolton Octagon by Mark Babych, who is now artistic director of the Hull theatre. "Mark keeps referring to me as the 'Queen of the M62!" she says, such is her popularity at theatres up and down the spine of the north.

Northern Broadsides present Hard Times, Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, tomorrow until Saturday; also West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds, May 22 to 26. Box office: Scarborough, 01723 370541 or at; Leeds, 0113 213 7700 or