The circus comes to town

Barnum and wife

Just like that: Brian Conley as Phineas Taylor Barnum shows off his magic skills to wife Chairy, played by Linzi Hateley

Barnum

The Grand Wolverhampton

*****

BRIAN Conley and P T Barnum have much in common. Like Barnum before him  Conley is a great showman and knows instinctively how to work an audience.

SO if ever a performer was born to play the part of the circus legend it is Conley who grabs the audience from his entrance to his final exit, even indulging in a little pantoism by involving Victor, some poor soul in the front stalls, in a quiz about elephants.

It is a role that demands a little more of an actor than song and dance though and Conley had to manage some effective magic, turning a flaming twist of paper into a rose, for example, along with fire eating, stilt walking and that always dangerous tight rope walk, a necessity for the role which must have demanded hours of practice.

Conley fell at the first attempt, whether scripted we will not know, but and unscripted falls from that height are always fraught with danger.

Set against Conley’s consummate showman is his wife Chairy, played by Birmingham born West End and Broadway star Linzi Hateley. She has a confident manner on stage and a wonderful voice, as does classically trained Kimberly Blake who plays the Swedish Nightingale Jenny Lind, the opera singer Barnum paid a phenomenal $1,000 a night for 150 shows.

We also meet some of the characters from Barnum’s shows such as Joice Heth, played by the lively Landi Oshinowo, who was the oldest woman alive at 160, or possibly a hundred years old as George Washington’s nurse, depending upon Barnum’s particular line of humbug that day.

And there was General Tom Thumb who was neither a general nor called Tom Thumb but in an age of side shows that hardly mattered. He was played by the diminutive Mikey Jay-Heath, with a big chair and, to add to the illusion, soldiers an Conley appearing on stilts to emphasise his size.

We had the largest elephant in the world, so big only his feet and truncast of barnumk would fit n the Grand stage, and a mermaid, or at least we saw her tail as Barnum’s travelling show came to town with a wonderful ensemble who juggled, performed on trapeze, ropes and ribbons, played instruments, were acrobats and tumblers and turned the theatre into a circus long before the curtain rose..

Welcome to the greatest show on earth in Black and White with the cast of Barnum

Most impressive was a piece of skilled choreography from Andrew Wright which saw the cast throwing around 24 bricks throughout the number One Brick at a Time finishing with them all in order to spell out Barnum Museum at the end. That was magic in itself as Barnum's career took him from showman to senator and a meeting with James Bailey, played by Ringmaster John Stacey, which saw the birth of the Three Ring Circus.

This is a big show with a glorious circus set designed by Scott Pask with wonderful period circus costumes  from Paul Wills and no expense has been spared on music either with an 11 strong band, under  musical director Ian Townsend.

That is big for a touring show and, where orchestras are concerned, size really does matter. Ranged above the stage at the back the band make a full, glorious sound which anyone would be happy to follow.

Cameron Mackintosh’s new production, directed by Jean-Pierre Van Der Spuy is glitzy, bright and full of life. As a musical Barnum has music that ranges from rousing to tender but for show that has collected so many awards in its time, it never manages a show stopping number, but what the music does do is drive the whole show along at a cracking pace.

Phineas Taylor Barnum, incidentally was almost a contemporary of the Grand Theatre. He died, aged 80, in 1891 while the Grand opened its doors in 1894, one of the greatest achievements of the celebrated theatrical architect Charles J. Phipps.

The wonderful reds and golds of the ornate 19th century circus ring set with the rich reds and golds of the Grand’s  elaborate 19th century half circle auditorium, complement each other beautifully, like Conley and Barnum, is a match made in heaven.

As shows go Barnum is never going to tax the intellect or tug the emotions too much but who cares, it’s great fun and cracking entertainment So roll up, roll up roll up and see the greatest show on earth, as Mr Barnum would have modestly put it To 31-12-15

Roger Clarke

27-01-15 

 

Following the band . . .

****

WHO better to perform the role of the World’s greatest showman in this colourful musical than the much loved Brian Conley.

Hugely popular in the Midlands, where he has regularly appeared over the past three decades, he is in real life the ultimate showman, able to manipulate any audience.

In Cameron Mackintosh and Michael Harrison’s enjoyable production, Conley is supremely skilful playing Phineas T. Barnum, even able to tackle some of those circus tricks like fire-eating and the high wire with remarkable confidence.

Whether he reaches the other side on that rather dangerous, breath-taking task the audience have to wait and see, but the singer-actor excels in most things that made the super showman such a global star.

Before curtain up, members of the cast mingle with the customers providing a taste of what’s to come, with juggling, handstands on the seats and stunts with hoola hoops, but it’s a somewhat slow start on stage until Barnum becomes involved with opera singer Jenny Lind (Kimberley Blake), and you feel the anguish of his loyal wife, Chairy, beautifully played by Broadway and West West End star Linzi Hateley.

A fine performance, too, from Landi Oshinowo who, as the supposedly oldest woman in the world, reveals a remarkable singing voice.

Cy Coleman’s music is pleasant throughout, though the only show-stopper is Come Follow the Band, and Andrew Wright’s choreography brings out the best in the energetic cast.

Directed by Jean-Pierre Van Der Spuy, Barnum cruns to 31-01-15.

Paul Marston

28-01-15

Barnum will return to the Midlands at Birmingham Hippodrome from 07-07-15 to 01-08-15

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