BWW Review: BARNUM, Menier Chocolate Factory
The Menier has a superb track record with breathing new life into classic musicals, but falls short with their latest revival: Cy Coleman's 1980 portrait of P.T. Barnum, creator of "The Greatest Show on Earth".
In stripping back some of the spectacle for this smaller space, Gordon Greenberg's production reveals the work's weaknesses - as well as those of its leading man.
The 19th-century showman Barnum was a master of "humbug", or deception, using white lies to gussy up his attractions and pack in audiences. When the "world's oldest woman" fails to create a buzz, he rebrands her as George Washington's all-singing, all-dancing nurse (the suitably versatile Tupele Dorgu). There is, he cheerily proclaims in the opening number, "a sucker born every minute".
Previous portrayers of the impresario have included Jim Dale and Michael Crawford, and Hugh Jackman follows in a new film this Christmas; Marcus Brigstocke is simply not in their league. We have to believe in Barnum's keen hustler instincts, his slick charisma, his feverish ability to deceive, flatter, sell and dream big. It certainly helps if the actor has great moves and a strong singing voice.
Brigstocke, unfortunately, convinces in precisely none of these respects. He has the comedian's facility with a crowd, but only in the line of wry quips when things don't go to plan. The supposed first half climax - Barnum walking across a tightrope - resulted last night in Brigstocke tumbling off several times and only making it with the help of a more able castmate. Sadly symbolic of this bizarre miscasting.
He's outclassed vocally and in performance by the always superb Laura Pitt-Pulford as Barnum's rational wife Chairy, who longs for stability but can't help loving her man - and winds up facilitating some of his follies with shrewd practicality and just a twinkly-eyed hint of enjoyment. One might almost wish the pair had swapped roles.
There's strong work too from Harry Francis as Tom Thumb, a lithe and exciting dancer who pirouettes and jetés around the stage, and from the pure-voiced Celinde Schoenmaker as the Swedish opera diva - although there we must endure some "funny foreigner" shtick.
The latter is symptomatic of Mark Bramble's book: full of cheap laughs and sentimentality, but frustratingly conflict-averse. A fire, an affair, even a death drift by with little impact; nor does it interrogate the social outsider status of Barnum's 'attractions'. It's all soft-focus romance, with little of the pizzazz you might expect when telling the story of a dynamic entertainer.
However, Paul Farnsworth's immersive, in-the-round set supplies some of those thrills, with red and white stripes suggesting the grand tent, a revolving circus ring and versatile vintage props. There are inventive touches in this smaller space, like suspended doll's houses to evoke different locations, and an entirely charming miniature train. Philip Gladwell lights it all brilliantly.
Gives thanks, too, for Rebecca Howell's vibrant choreography (with a circus assist from Scott Maidment) - we get impressive flips, tricks and stunts, soaring aerial work, and tight ensemble movement that smooths over narrative bumps and adds much-needed volume to some of Coleman's less-convincing numbers.
There's also the fun of seeing embarrassed Brits engaged in magic tricks and audience participation. In fact, the most dramatic moment of last night's performance was Brigstocke pressing a kazoo on the Mail's Quentin Letts - who was having none of it.
More successful musically is Alex Parker's bright, brassy band. But without a strong lead lending emotional heft to those numbers, it's empty entertainment. A circus tent missing its ringmaster and star attraction.
Photo credit: Nobby Clark