Hard Times. Guildford School of Acting presented by the American Community Theatre, APA Drama Theatre. April 15-17 and 20-23. LET'S forget the stars of tomorrow. As every actor knows, you're as good as your current show _ in this case, Stephen Jeffreys' adaptation of Hard Times. It is faithful in both content and spirit to Charles Dickens' novel, yet its appeal is curiously modern. Or maybe not so curious. A century after the Industrial Revolution, the injustices remain; the attitudes and manners of the time not so much quaint as disturbingly familiar. It is also a long play and that does pose a problem. A three-hour production _ and director Michael Gaunt can't be faulted for pacing _ is definitely stretching it in this age of immediacy. The freshness and energy of these graduating students from Guildford compensate greatly despite certain predictable devices which have became de rigueur for British drama schools. All-round talent is essential in today's fiercely competitive theatre scene is the constant reminder _ hence a rather smug a capella opening and a circus scene complete with nubile young things doing cartwheels. Actually it doesn't matter if you can't sing or dance for toffee. Presence, charisma, whatever you call it; that's the thing that sorts out the real talent _ the kind demonstrated so often by this cast. Ellen Whear, playing Mrs Sparsit, hams it up, but how welcome are the antics of that interfering busybody in a drama so laden with sorrows. If Ms Whear never uttered another word on stage, she could survive comfortably on her miming and comedic skills. The young playing the mature in years often stirs discomfort, but credibility is never a problem for Keiran Flynn whose Mr Gradgrind, whether fearsome schoolmaster or finally humbled parent, is richly convincing. Also rewarding are Julian Duncan's grotesquely pompous Bounderby, Lucy Akhurst's sensitively drawn Louisa, Karl Jans as Tom and Melanie Carson as Sissy. Few actors would attempt three roles. Justin Fletcher has the nerve and the skill, though his lisping Sleary, while colourful and heart-warming, is often incomprehensible. Otherwise, diction is superior in this production whose narrators score not only with delivery, but fill in the gaps between novel and play. There is much to absorb _ too much for some _ yet Dickens' genius shines through and there are moments of exquisite pathos. ''Your system has robbed me of the spring and summer of my life,'' weeps Louisa when the dam finally breaks. How piercing is that cry from the heart, especially in a city whose young know better than most that facts, facts, facts are no substitute for love and compassion in the manufacture of human fabric.