Hard Times has had a very hard time of it indeed. First off, it didn't enter the West End at the choicest time for a new musical - heading into a hot summer and after a string of turkeys that had folk salivating for more to write off. On cue, it was greeted with generally poor opening night reviews, and then had to endure cancellations after one of its stars, Roy Hudd, was felled with laryngitis in, critically, the absence of a rehearsed understudy. But even with all that, let's be honest, the show has much to recommend it.
Like Lionel Bart before them, Christopher Tookey and Hugh Thomas turned to the Victorian master Charles Dickens for their source material. Adapted from the Dickens' novel of the same name, Hard Times tells the story of a travelling circus' impact on the townsfolk of cold, industrialised Coketown.
Though Dicken's own account was bleak, Tookey and Thomas adopt an upbeat approach, signalled most strongly by the appointment of Hudd as circusmaster Mr Sleary and emcee for the evening. In this, Hudd doesn't do anything much different from any other role, panto or otherwise, that he's ever taken on - but he does the usual admirably.
Brian Blessed is Thomas Gradgrind, the school-owner, fact-lover and distant father who comes good in the end. In truth, a nastier piece of work would have been better cast as Gradgrind. But the selection of Blessed is in keeping with the jovial nature of this Hard Times, and his warm-hearted presence and pleasant boom of a voice is welcome.
Good support comes from, amongst others, Malcolm Rennie as the cut-throat Mr Bounderby, Ann Emery as the put-upon Mrs Gradgrind, and the young heroines Helen Anker as Gradgrind's sacrificial daughter Louisa and Alicia Davies as sweet-voiced and sweet-natured Sissy Jupe. But really the most enjoyable part of the evening is the music. Mark Warman orchestrates one hummable ditty after another - with more than a nod to Gilbert & Sullivan, particularly in the 'Modern Marriage Pact' number.
There are flaws to the production. Tookey's decision to stage it as a play within a play, with circus performers acting out the parts of the townspeople, is clunky and makes it overly difficult to keep track of who's who and when. And the odd sight of, for instance, downtrodden factory workers with garishly painted faces and clown trousers is distracting.
So, on the final analysis, Oliver! this ain't. But Hard Times is enjoyable and, of its type - ie, old-fashioned, unchallenging, family-style musical - it's really quite good. Fans of Hudd, Blessed or music hall in particular won't be disappointed.