If you type Barnum into a search engine, you don’t have to scroll down very far before you come across an article asking if the eponymous character is the “Hardest part in theatre?”. Many of the UK’s most esteemed entertainers have tackled the role including Michael Crawford, Paul Nicholas and Brian Conley, who is quoted as saying he lost a stone in weight from playing the role on the most recent tour.
But it’s not just the amount of stage time, the wealth of emotive songs and the infamous tightrope walk that make PT Barnum a difficult ask for an actor. No, it’s also the fact that audiences need to be sufficiently charmed and dazzled by the charisma of the character to make the story of the ‘greatest showman on earth’ believable.
With that in mind, casting the comedian Marcus Brigstocke – whose only previous musical theatre experience was in Spamalot – in the pivotal role at the Menier Chocolate Factory, was a real gamble and sadly, despite him having some really endearing qualities, he’s just not quite up to the job.
The 1980 Broadway musical follows Barnum as he sets up an elaborate show filled with humbugs – fake attractions including a 160-year old woman and a mermaid – which audiences are happy to pay to see. His long-suffering wife Chairy- played by the wonderful Laura Pitt-Pulford – really conveys the emotional core of the show and attempts to ground him in the real world.
But this new scaled down production is essentially all about the ensemble, an energetic and highly entertaining bunch, who dance, sing and perform death-defying feats of daring, all within touching distance of the audience. In fact, I could have quite happily have dispensed with the story (well it is pretty flimsy) and just watched this exquisite team for the whole show.
Both Laura Pitt-Pulford (as Chairy) and Celinde Schoenmaker (as the Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind) add a sense of class to the show, with excellent vocals and do a good job of keeping Brigstocke on track. I must also mention Harry Francis, whose ‘Bigger Isn’t Better’ is a real highlight.
And what Gordon Greenburg’s production lacks in spectacle is partly made up for by Rebecca Howell’s tight chorography and a good use of the playing area, but you can’t help but feel that the famous showstoppers “Come Follow the Band” and “Join the Circus” are just a bit too small scale.
This isn’t a classic production of Barnum, but that’s not to say it’s not hugely entertaining and it’s worth heading down to the Menier just to see the scintillating ensemble performance.
Review: Nicky Sweetland
Photo: Tristram Kenton