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Barnum

Music by Cy Coleman, lyrics by Michael Stewart, book by Mark Bramble
Cameron Mackintosh and Chichester Festival Theatre
Palace Theatre, Manchester

Brian Conley as PT Barnum and company Credit: Johan Persson
Linzi Hateley as Chairy and Brian Conley as PT Barnum Credit: Johan Persson
Brian Conley as PT Barnum, Linzi Hateley as Chairy and company Credit: Johan Persson

The life of Phineas Taylor Barnum, flamboyant creator of "The Greatest Show on Earth", returns to Manchester after more than thirty years, the show that reopened the Opera House in 1983 starring Michael Crawford.

This time, the multi-talented Brian Conley plays the demanding title role in this Chichester Festival Theatre and Cameron Mackintosh revival, a part that requires singing, dancing, circus skills and a touch of magic.

Barnum was a showman to the core, taking acts such as the 160-year-old woman, operatic soprano Jenny Lind (the Swedish Nightingale), the Feejee Mermaid and the diminutive General Tom Thumb and, with a bit of flimflam, turning them into huge attractions and big money-spinners. His wife, however, was rather more cautious and pragmatic and often worried by his schemes.

The show is a pitstop tour of his life from his creation of the American Museum, which burned down, to taking his show on the road to meeting James Bailey after the death of his wife to create the three-ring Barnum and Bailey Circus.

The storytelling reminded me a bit of the quirky and not entirely successful narrative approach of Mack and Mabel, even before I realised that the book writer from that show, Michael Stewart, was the lyric writer for Barnum. It is delivered as a circus show directly to the audience interspersed with Barnum telling us his own story and then jumping into scenes to elaborate these parts of his life. Some of it looks heavily influenced by Chicago, especially the narration links from the Ringmaster.

This style makes the story very broken up and episodic, which doesn't allow you to get close to or really empathise with the characters. The exception to this is Barnum himself, who is on throughout and engages directly with the audience, even improvising banter with them like a stand-up comedian. The success of this depends entirely on the skills and charisma of the performer, but there are no worries here with Conley.

His background as a comedian means that he can work the audience effortlessly before slipping seamlessly back into the story. But it isn't just comedy that he can do well; his control over pacing in the more emotional moments in the second half really pulls at the heartstrings.

His singing, however, is mostly talk-singing in his familiar gruff speaking voice, which sort-of works but means that you don't go out singing the most catchy tunes as you don't hear them sung enough. The great Cy Coleman has supplied a few forgettable tunes for this score, but songs like "There Is A Sucker Born Ev'ry Minute" and "Come Follow The Band" should stick in the mind more than they do here.

The act one closer, "Out There", isn't a particularly memorable song, but it becomes a spectacular way to go into the interval due to Conley's tightrope walk in the middle of it—he makes a meal of it just as Crawford did, but this is superbly effective in building suspense.

The only other significant role is Barnum's wife, Chairy, played very effectively by Linzi Hateley, with all other roles played by a talented ensemble who also perform acrobatics, aerial tricks, juggling, fire breathing and all manner of genuine circus skills against Scott Pask's colourful scenic design, complimented by Paul Wills's costumes. The sound (designed by Mick Potter) is faultless throughout, a rarity in the challenging acoustics of the Palace.

While not the greatest show on earth by any means as written, this production is a spectacular piece of theatre for all the family carried by a terrific central performance.

Reviewer: David Chadderton