The story, as most will know, is set in the early 19th Century, and concerns Thomas Gradgrind, a school owner and MP. When a circus girl's father deserts her, Mr Gradgrind agrees to educate the child, but only if Mr Sleary's Travelling circus leaves town. Thomas Gradgrind is an insensible callous man. He treats his children harshly and without compassion. When the children grow up, he marries his daughter off to a tyrant and his son becomes a gambler and thief. He also fails in his experiment to educate the circus girl. However, in the end Thomas Gradgrind sees the error of his ways and recognises the values of love and compassion.
I have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed this comedy musical which is full of delightful characters and charming songs. It does not have many memorable tunes, but nevertheless the tunes are still catchy and certainly capture the era. The show lasts nearly three hours but the pace and enjoyment never wavers. It has an excellent cast that simply shine with enthusiasm. The casting of Brian Blessed as 'Mr Thomas Gradgrind', and Roy Hudd as 'Mr Samuel Sleary', is a dream. Each standing out with authority and dominating the stage with great timing and superb facial features. There are enchanting performances from Peter Blake as 'Mr Childers', an MP and seducer, and Susan Jane Tanner as the spinster housekeeper 'Miss Fidget'. There is also an amusing performance from Ann Emery as 'Mrs Sleary'. Malcolm Rennie also makes a great villain as Mr Josiah Bounderby, a banker and mill owner who sets his sights on Mr Gradgrind's daughter. The company perform with great energy showing off their acrobatic skills.
As I said the show has received mixed reviews from the popular press… THE TIMES says, "A warm, thoroughly likeable evening, but not one that fulfils Dickens's more serious aims.." THE GUARDIAN says, "This tuppence-coloured tuner reminds us of the days when the musical was a source of innocent delight." THE FINANCIAL TIMES says, "Once it gets going, it is amiable and rather charming, and it has a warmth about it that is very welcome after some of the more soulless blockbuster musicals. "THE DAILY TELEGRAPH critic says " I particularly relished the moment when Mrs Gradgrind got up and performed an energetic tap dance after her big death scene - dramatic energy burns at a dismally low wattage." THE DAILY MAIL, liked the show saying Brian Blessed is "Delightful, and Roy Hudd "is a Hoot" THE NEWS OF THE WORLD says it "will send audiences home with warm hearts and a spring, in their step". PETER HEPPLE for THE STAGE says, "What we see is an engaging but overlong mixture of music hall, circus and the kind of British musical that fell out of fashion in the seventies." DOMINIC CAVENDISH for TIME OUT says, "This show has an intimate scale, a sense of humour and a respect for such old-fashioned virtues as a narrative you can follow and tunes you could, in theory hum." NICHOLAS DE JONGH did not like it at all calling it "Boring" and saying, "This three-hour Hard Times could do with major surgery".
This show has a pantomime, music hall feel to it and is not to be taken too seriously, even though it has a serious subject. It is a quality production which is performed so well that I fail to see how anyone could not possibly find it at least a 'little' entertaining. Go see it now and have a little mindless fun.