The circus musical is a theatrical experience different from many mainstream musicals, writes Matthew Gormley
The circus juggernaut Barnum rolls into Manchester with sparkly staging and spectacular stunts, although I cannot begin to imagine the scale of the health-and-safety headache that these performances bring with them. “Whatever you do, do it with all your might.
Work at it, early and late, in season and out of season, not leaving a stone unturned, and never deferring for a single hour that which can be done just as well now.” These are the words of P T Barnum, the illusive con-man who turned into ‘the greatest showman on Earth’. This was, of course, a title he originally gave to himself, but the fact that a dazzling new production of a show based on his life is currently playing in Manchester, 123 years after his death, you’d be hard-pressed to find a reason to argue with him.
Phineas Taylor Barnum, born on 5 July 1810, grew up on a farm, where he developed his sharp eye for the trade and, ultimately, learnt how to make a profit by ripping people off in the nicest possible way. On his road to stardom, he worked as a clerk, set up his own newspaper and served a sixty-day prison sentence for libel. His sharp career change to circus master came when he heard about a 161-year-old ex-nurse of George Washington, whom he paid $1,000 for and promptly took her on the road around the United States. After this quick money-spinner, there was no stopping him; he spent the rest of his life developing his acts, determined to become the most famous showman of his time.
The life and career of P T Barnum was eventful enough to be transformed into a two-and-a-half hour stage show, which first opened on Broadway in 1980. This latest version, produced by Cameron Mackintosh and Michael Harrison, resides at Manchester’s Palace Theatre as part of its 31-week UK tour. Legendary entertainer Brian Conley takes on the title role of P T Barnum superbly, owning the venue from the moment he steps out onto the stage at the beginning of the first act right the way through to the show-stopping finale.
Barnum is just one of a handful of productions that Brian has taken centre stage in, having previously played the roles of Caractacus Potts in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Bill Snibson in Me and My Girl and Fagin in Oliver!, not to mention the numerous TV shows and albums that have earned numerous awards.
Ever the professional, Brian effortlessly pulls off the role of Barnum, commanding the stage in a manner that could only be expected from the ring master of one of the world’s most famous circuses. With singing, dancing and bags of audience participation, Brian is the perfect choice to lead this glorious cast. Now he is able to add circus skills to his already impressive list of talents, although when it came to walking the tight rope during the press night, he didn’t quite manage it the first time round. Ever the professional, he recovered and made light of the situation with hilarious consequences.
Linzi Hateley takes on the role of Barnum’s wife Chairy, the woman who desperately tries to keep him grounded throughout the twists and turns of his rollercoaster career. Linzi has previously starred in the West End with the RSC, played alongside Jason Donovan and Phillip Schofield in Joseph And His Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat, and is the only female ever to have taken on two roles in Les Miserables, having played both Eponine and Madame Thénardier.
Kimberley Blake, who found fame on Andrew Lloyd Webber’s BBC talent search How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria?, is outstanding as Barnum’s first signed act, Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind, whilst Landi Oshinwo, who was also discovered by Lloyd Webber, deserves credit for convincingly portraying a woman who is 127 years her senior. With Mikey Jay-Heath as Tom Thumb, John Stacey as the Ringmaster and a wonderfully talented ensemble, this show is a circus of delights that offers a theatrical experience which is a little bit different from many of the other mainstream musicals. So, don your top hat, ‘come follow the band’ and grab your tickets before they all do a disappearing act.
Barnum is at the Palace Theatre, Manchester until Saturday 15 November.