What the Dickens?

Hard Times | Theatre Royal, Haymarket, London
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Only minutes into the opening night of Hard Times, everything ground to a halt and the police were called in. Actually, it was all part of the show and they're not real police. Heavens, it isn't that radical. In fact, the most daring thing about this brand-new musical is that it could have been written almost 30 years ago. And guess what? It was.

Only minutes into the opening night of Hard Times, everything ground to a halt and the police were called in. Actually, it was all part of the show and they're not real police. Heavens, it isn't that radical. In fact, the most daring thing about this brand-new musical is that it could have been written almost 30 years ago. And guess what? It was.

As gestation periods go, that's beyond elephantine, but if the producers had had the grand budget they so obviously lack they might have run to elephants, because this is a circus show, of sorts. With real live juggling. And white-faced clowns. And a couple of doves. And a camel.

Actually, it's a human camel (two actors, one hump), which brings me to my next point. It should never have opened in June. The producers should have waited until about November because, truth to tell, it's pretty damn close to a pantomime, and to prove the point they've cast that great panto institution Roy Hudd. The personification of larky, he has a whale of a time as the bombastic, grinning ringmaster Samuel Sleary. He knows his way around a stage like no one's business and wastes no time on anything so foolish as characterisation. Instead he dons different wigs and costumes and proceeds to wink at and work the audience like the trouper he is.

He's partnered by Brian Blessed, who appears to be impersonating Simon Callow but is in fact Gradgrind, the stern man who believes in the primacy of facts over emotions. Blessed, however, is given to overflowing humanity, which rather takes the sting out of this particular tale. When the moral of the story is eventually announced and he's forced to face not only his son's wickedness but also his own unemotional inflexibility, the scene goes for nothing because he never seemed particularly intransigent to begin with.

"We can make better things be/ And give more sympa thy" sing the company, but how can you feel sympathy for people you've barely got to know? Scenes come and go and the actors talk plot to one another and sing nicely, but silly Charles Dickens made it a bit too complicated and serious. Mercifully though, for those folk who secretly long for the return of television's The Good Old Days and haven't truly enjoyed a musical since the original production of Salad Days, Christopher Tookey arrived. Alongside Hugh Thomas, he pruned the novel into bite-sized chunks, wrote the music and lyrics and directed the show. He even co-produced it. So we know who to blame.

Without a doubt, the best thing about the show are Mark Warman's terrific orchestrations, which have more colour and charm than everything else put together. It's not that anything is truly and terribly wrong with this music-hall style confection, just that absolutely nothing unexpected happens all evening. It's benign but, I'm afraid, boring. Except, that is, for the "Spring is in the Air" number in which the chorus dress up as flowers and do a tap routine using just their fingers. Yes, you did read that last sentence correctly.

Booking until 5 Aug (020-7930 8800)

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