I had a really bad night’s sleep the night before we saw Barnum. And I know precisely why; even though we go to the theatre a lot (I’m very lucky, gentle reader, and I do try not to take it for granted), I couldn’t sleep simply because I was genuinely so excited to see the show again. I saw the original production of Barnum at the London Palladium with the late Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle back in 1981. Front stalls seats for £8.50… they charged £99.50 for the same seats for Dick Whittington last month. Michael Crawford was always one of my theatrical heroes, and he’s rarely taken to a role with such positivity and enthusiasm as that of Phineas Taylor Barnum. In 1996 Mrs Chrisparkle and I saw a touring production at the Wycombe Swan starring Andrew O’Connor. I remember enjoying it; that’s all I remember.
Then a few years ago, Barnum was revived at Chichester, in a big top tent in the park, whilst the Festival Theatre was being refitted. A perfect use of the space, and a magnificent setting for the revival. PTB was played by Broadway star Christopher Fitzgerald. Comparisons are odious, but he lacked the showbizzy pizzazz of Michael Crawford, and he couldn’t walk the tightrope. He did, however, invest the part with loads of emotion, so his affair with Jenny Lind, and his bereavement when his beloved Charity dies (oops, spoilers, sorry) were really moving.
So now we have a brand new Barnum, in that amazingly versatile theatre space, the Menier Chocolate Factory, which has been jiggered around so that it now feels like a proper big top. First thing: the staging is superb. Even just entering the theatre, you might bump into the ringmaster or some of his assistants; the bar/reception area recreates Barnum’s museum, with suitable pictures and artefacts; on the way out, his mermaid even shows up to direct us towards the egress. It all makes absolutely perfect scene-setting. Inside the auditorium, various cast members play card tricks with the audience, or create balloon animals for children of all ages; it was one of those shows where I was absolutely loving it before it had even begun.
Inevitably though, with this in the round staging, for every moment when part of the action is right in front of you and you have the best view in the house, there’s another moment when you simply can’t see what’s going on. We sat in seats A 84 & 85, from where you couldn’t see the balcony where Charity often looked down on the action and where (I believe) the blues singer opens the song Black and White. When Tom Thumb’s elephant appears, his right leg completely obliterated the view of the stage so we couldn’t see the final part of Bigger Isn’t Better – and also from that angle, you had no sense of how the theatrical illusion of the elephant worked. So, some friendly and helpful advice: if you haven’t booked yet, and there are still some tickets left for some shows, I’d definitely opt for seats numbers 20 – 36, no matter what row you choose. The Menier is one of the most intimate acting spaces I know, and even if there were a full house for Barnum it can’t seat more than 190 people for one show; so the atmosphere is still magic no matter where you sit.
In the title role is Marcus Brigstocke, whom we’ve seen twice doing stand-up and once in Spamalot, and he’s always a total joy to watch. But what would he make of the iconic role of Barnum, the supreme showman? As you would expect, he makes it his own. Wisely, there’s no attempt to impersonate Crawford, or to go over the top on the pizzazz. Mr Brigstocke’s Barnum is not so much the supreme showman, more the supreme businessman – and I don’t mean that unkindly. Much of the story revolves around Barnum’s building up of his circus/museum empire, assessing the benefits of one act over the next, working out how much they should be paid, going into partnerships with various other businessmen; and also getting his work/life balance right vis-à-vis his good lady wife. In these regards, Mr B is absolutely spot on. For the other aspects of Barnum’s character, I found him perhaps a little staid, a little respectable. I’m not sure he’d ever run away to join the circus, but he’d definitely be their Operations Manager. Credit where it’s due though; on the show we saw, he performed the tightrope trick perfectly, so kudos to him for that, given he’s quite a big bloke!
The character of Barnum has a lot of singing to do, and I’d say that Mr Brigstocke’s singing voice has come a long way since we saw him in Spamalot. Technically, it’s a really demanding role and challenges the performer’s vocal dexterity. For example, he has to enunciate the Museum Song, a patter song with so many words per minute that most people would need a lie down after it. I couldn’t work out whether it was Mr Brigstocke’s performance, or the Menier’s sound system, but quite a lot of it got, shall we say, lost in action. But I’ve no wish to be mean, I really enjoyed Mr Brigstocke as Barnum, he had an avuncular charm and great interaction with the audience; and we got to shake his hand as part of his political rally.
The rest of the cast are outstanding, in all departments. Laura Pitt-Pulford is as splendid as you would imagine as Chairy Barnum, with her beautiful singing voice complimenting perfectly the sentiments of The Colours of My Life, I Like Your Style (by the way, how come it became I liked your style?) and my own favourite, One Brick at a Time. She also teased out all the emotion of the role; you could have heard the legendary pin drop – or indeed, her heart break – when she realised that her Taylor was staying behind to play the jackdaw with the Swedish nightingale. Talking of whom, Celinde Schoemaker is brilliant as Jenny Lind; captivatingly beautiful, an extraordinary voice and really expressing that spoilt, demanding and tiresome character that lurked beneath. The staging of Love Makes Such Fools of us All, within a picture frame, was both beautiful and tragic to witness. Tupele Dorgu is an amusingly young looking Joice Heth – almost throwing Barnum’s humbug in our face to think that she could be 160 years old – and I loved her renditions of Black and White and especially Thank God I’m Old, which I reckon is one of the funniest songs in musical theatre. I remember how when I saw the Palladium production, “Thank God I’m Old” really made the late Dowager laugh her head off; which, if you ever knew her, gentle reader, may well come as quite a surprise.
I was delighted to see one of my favourite performers, Harry Francis, as Tom Thumb; having seen him dance his way through A Chorus Line, Chicago and Fiddler on the Roof, I knew he’d bring something special to this show. I bet no other Tom Thumb has ever performed so many perfect pirouettes, executed brilliantly without travelling from the start position. It was also great to see another fantastic dancer, Danny Collins, so amazing as Dr Jekyll a couple of years ago, as Amos Scudder. Dominic Owen plays the ringmaster more like one of the lads than the boss, which is an interesting way of looking at the role, and his curious Mr Bailey at the end was a picture of awe and wonderment at the wonderful world of circus, rather than the hard-nosed businessman I’ve seen before. The ensemble are vivacious and entertaining, with some great circus performers as well as the musical theatre types. Amongst them I reckon young Ainsley Hall Ricketts is going to be One To Watch for the future! I almost forgot to mention Rebecca Howell’s choreography, which would have been most remiss of me. Funny, exhilarating, inventive, joyful; it matched the music and the story perfectly and was a sheer delight.
It wasn’t until the final song – Join The Circus – was starting up that I remembered quite how much significance and emotion I, personally, invest in Barnum the show. Basically, I’d forgotten how much it reminded me of my old mum; she who was an enormous Michael Crawford fan, she who found the character of Joice Heth so hilarious. Never underestimate the power of the theatre to stir the emotions and trigger the nostalgia button; nor ever underestimate the power of a show tune to get the old waterworks flowing. By the time we were putting our coats on to brave the Southwark winter, I found the tears were fair coursin’ down my cheeks, so they were. Now I wasn’t expecting that!
It wasn’t perfect; few things are. But I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed it. No wonder I couldn’t sleep the night before. If you ever dreamed of running away and joining a troupe of acrobats and clowns, this is the show for you. If you love immersive theatre where the action comes up right close to you, this is also the show for you. It runs until 3rd March and I’d be thrilled to go again, if you’ve got a spare ticket.
Production photos by Nobby Clark