Review: BARNUM, Watermill Theatre

Matt Rawle leads a dazzling production that can't quite escape the humbugs in its book

By: Jul. 10, 2024
Review: BARNUM, Watermill Theatre
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Review: BARNUM, Watermill Theatre Modern audiences may readily associate 19th century entrepreneur Phineas Taylor ‘PT’ Barnum with the Hugh Jackman-led The Greatest Showman, but in the years since has become a more controversial name for deceiving audiences with tall tales while exploiting animals, children and slaves for profit. Not that Cy Coleman and Mark Bramble’s 1980 musical chose to focus on that side of him. With the likes of Jim Dale and Michael Crawford previously in the role, Matt Rawle now dons the top hat and red tailcoat for the Watermill Theatre’s summer revival.

‘There’s a sucker in everyone’ boasts PT Barnum as he dreams of creating ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’. From there, the musical highlights his life from selling slave Joice Heth as the 160 year-old nurse of George Washington (conveniently omitting that he sold tickets for a public viewing of her autopsy), his ambitions grow from the American Museum showcasing the infamous Fiji Mermaid, to his tour with Jenny Lind to even a career in politics.

Review: BARNUM, Watermill Theatre
Photo credit: Pamela Raith

Mark Bramble’s book is anaemic, feeling like a laundry list of Barnum’s achievements with the occasional callout for his ‘humbugs’ from responsible yet devoted wife Charity. Act one drags through the opening of the American Museum while act two hastily swerves into his mayoral career before ending on a high as his collaboration with James Anthony Bailey opens their flagship circus. Director Jonathan O’Boyle feels aware of the book’s misgivings, keeping the pacing brisk while prioritising the spectacle people came for as Coleman’s jaunty songs entertain the audience.

Lee Newby has transformed the Watermill into a full-top circus inside and out. With a fire-eater, jugglers, and an actor-muso group greeting the audience, the entertainment continues inside as a trio of trapezists rehearse. His set has a distinctly American circus aesthetic harkening to the American Dream Barnum sells to punters, with red and blue stripes and white stars adorning the auditorium. Oti Mabuse’s (Strictly Come Dancing) slick choreography keeps the numbers animated and lively, if occasionally restrained from the small stage. 

Review: BARNUM, Watermill Theatre
Photo credit: Pamela Raith

Matt Rawle (Evita) leads with a smile and glint in his eye as the self-proclaimed ‘Prince of Humbug.’ Possessing the natural charisma required that makes it easy to get whisked away by Barnum’s grandiose if impulsive ideas, Rawle feels way over his head in his ideas to the point you question if he believes them himself. When he closes act one walking a tightrope across the stage, you can’t help but be left on the edge of your seat in amazement.

The rest of the actor-muso ensemble is given their moment to shine. Monique Young makes a great foil to Rawle as his level-headed yet loving wife Charity ‘Chairy.’ Penny Ashmore possesses a soaring soprano as 'Swedish Nightingale’ Jenny Lind while showing her harp and ballet skills. Fergus Rattigan shines in his solo "Bigger Isn’t Better" as Charles ‘General Tom Thumb’ Stratton. Tania Mathurn is a joy as Joice Heth who brings gumption to "Thank God I’m Old". Yes, there’s even a brief appearance from Jumbo the Elephant.

Review: BARNUM, Watermill Theatre
Photo credit: Pamela Raith

Love or hate him, you can’t deny that Barnum, both person and musical, knows how to put on a good show. The Watermill’s dazzling production fully immerses the audience into the showman’s wondrous world in spite of its inherent script issues. With an all-round talented cast led by the ever charismatic Matt Rawle, you’d be justified if you wanted to run away and join the circus after watching this.

Barnum runs at the Watermill Theatre until 8 September

Photo credit: Pamela Raith




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