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Hard Times The Musical
It is an appropriate setting for Hard Times The Musical to be at the beautifully renovated Theatre Royal Haymarket, for this is the very theatre where Charles Dickens himself once trod the boards, a hundred and fifty years ago. Dickens' novel Hard Times is a polemic against the Utilitarian doctrine of the day but as we are out to have an evening of family fun, let's not worry too much about the details of Dickens' story but leave this to the purists who can always get to grips with the novel. That is for those who prefer to have a hard time of it! Whilst in my dotage, I find that I enjoy Dickens' novels much more than I did as a child, however the opening chapter of Hard Times the novel is as soporific as any barbiturate.
Hard Times the Musical is a pleasant mix of Victorian atmosphere, of disparate elements drawn from music hall, circus, tap dance, Gilbert and Sullivan, films of the 1940s, and of course, the modern musical. In fact the cast seem to be having such a good time, their enjoyment is infectious.
Here is the plot of the musical. The travelling circus of Mr Samuel Sleary has arrived to entertain the masses. Mr Dickens inveigles them into playing his story Hard Times and the circus troupe take the main parts. Some upstanding members of the community are also drafted into the cast and Dickens himself takes the part of Mr Thomas Gradgrind, school owner and Member of Parliament.
Now for the play within the play. The place is Coketown, a grim northern industrial milltown, its very walls blackened with coal dust and smoke. Gradgrind runs his school and schools his own children Tom and Louisa in the doctrine of practicality. The travelling circus is seen as frivolous and Gradgrind banishes it from town. Sissy Jupe, a circus child is raised by Gradgrind. He heartlessly marries his daughter Louisa, to a local industrialist (and bounder, although we don't know that yet) Josiah Bounderby. Tom Gradgrind gets into debt through gambling and becomes a thief. Mr James Harthouse, an elegant cad, seduces Louisa. Bounderby is exposed as a liar and a hypocrite. Finally Gradgrind realises that his experiment has failed and he learns to love his children and enjoy the circus.
Roy Hudd is a seasoned performer and a true comedian. He holds the show together as Samuel Sleary, the Ringmaster, introducing the scenes with boards carried on by an attractive acrobat. Mr Sleary can't pronounce his 's's properly, they come out as 'sth' -- e.g., "Here is the Sthleary circusth - sthtaring Misth Josthepheine Sthleary" -- you get the idea! Brian Blessed brings a fine baritone voice and stage presence to the role of Gradgrind. He seems to have found the elixir of youth. Susan Jane Tanner is Amelia Fidget (I love these Dickensian names), a man seeking spinster who can hit top C. Helen Anker as Louisa and Jan Graveson as Rachel,the girl in love with a man married to a drunkard, sings very prettily. Peter Blake, an attractive and decidedly dangerous womanising James Harthouse sings, "Haven't We Met Somewhere Before?" which goes on to rhyme with Singapore and Bangalore and bore! Tookey and Thomas' lyrics are full of good jokes. I particularly liked, Harthouse's chat up lines, "You remind me of a maiden/ In an 'otel I once stayed in." "A Modern Marriage Pact" from Gradgrind, Louisa and the company is a fun rendering of Gilbert and Sullivan's Modern Major General as Blessed gets his tongue and teeth round the consonants, "I've no objection to an absence of affection …" condemning his daughter to an unhappy marriage. Sissy counters this with a song, "What do you know about Love. " The show's love song is Rachel and Stephen's duet, "One of These Days. "
Mrs Gradgrind's funeral turns into a tap dance routine with raised crinolines, and, lest anyone should be feeling sad, it stars Mrs Gradgrind herself. In "Spring!" there is a Busby Berkeley dance number with dancers dressed as flowers and using finger taps, while Louisa sits on a garlanded swing. Other choreographic styles use the circus performers' skills and Harthouse dancing the tango and flamenco.
The Victorian circus costumes are delightful -- acrobats in stays and knickerbockers, the dancers in ringlets and starched muslins like pictures by Renoir. All the characters are there as if they have walked off a printed cookie tin. The factory scenes show the workers high up on chained platforms, a glimpse beyond Coketown's blackened brick walls and iron ladders and wheels.
Hard Times The Musical does not take itself too seriously. It is all tongue in cheek, a light hearted look at Dickens.