‘That kind of humbug just… disappeared’, reflects Brian Conley‘s PT Barnum, after the whistlestop tour of spectacle that conveys the achievements of the Greatest Impressario On Earth in this revised tour of the 1980 musical, playing at Birmingham Hippodrome until the beginning of August.
I’m not so sure… Haven’t we just been teased, tempted, beguiled and bluffed – all in the most colourful and enticing way – through the last two and a half hours? And, just as Barnum’s clientele were 150 years ago, we’re happy to play the suckers in this vivacious parade of dreams and magic.
The new adaptation from Cameron Mackintosh and original writer Mark Bramble is dressed in its circus finest from start to finish, regardless of the fact that the fateful pairing with James Bailey (John Stacey) occurs only at the very end of the show. That fate has hung above us throughout, however, with Stacey overseeing all as the Ringmaster announcer, guiding us through the snapshot scenic moments as though they were acts in a more traditional ringside setting. His role could equally have been titled ‘Destiny’.
Four of the 18-strong supporting cast members credit circus training in their programme bios, along with a further two gymnasts. I was expecting to see more, which is a testament to the training provided by Circus Consultant Juliette Hardy-Donaldson; acrobatics, juggling, fire skills and aerial work suffuse the entire production, at a level that appears natural and confident.
Some of the circus motifs used in Andrew Wright‘s choreography are rather more naïve, and it’s in the ensemble dance numbers that I often get a sense of the artifice that stoked Barnum’s own career. The genuine connection of circus performers to their audience, introduced so winningly with a pre-show of tricks and chatter in and among the audience, wears away into more standard musical theatre presentation as PT Barnum moves closer to his own circus future.
It’s generally taken as read that the titular Barnum is reference to Mr Phineas Taylor, but what this show makes clear is the equally important role held by his wife Chairy (Linzi Hateley) in securing the name’s greatness. The pair are gamely matched, and Hateley’s warmth and vigour touchingly complement Conley’s flighty exuberance.
Less convincing is the purported interest between Barnum and icy warbler Jenny Lind (Kimberly Blake), perhaps because their entire ‘relationship’ takes place while we’re out at interval. The delicious discomfort I feel at being tricked into applauding Barnum’s infidelity, analogous to Conley’s hard-earned trip across a 7 foot high tightwire, feels wasted, as the next time we see him he’s in the process of easily making it back up with his wife. The awkward attempts to find humour in a foreigner’s accent seem inapproriate in the 21st Century.
It’s hard to feel emotionally connected across the show, as all the visual trickery and humbug we’re treated to obscures any sense of veracity. Perhaps that what original director Joe Layton meant in 1980 when he said, ‘I hope the critics won’t kills us for being just an entertainment.’ But if entertainment’s what you’re after, Barnum has it in spades.
Conley’s decades of panto experience make him remarkably adept at the improvised moments of comedy engagement with the front few rows that are so exciting during the first half hour, and the visuals are as wondrous as promised, with the romantic glories of Victoriana circus given new life in evocative design from Paul Wills (costume) and Scott Pask (set). Pask himself is no stranger to designing for circus artists, and his work on Cirque Du Soleil’s Amaluna will be hitting London in January.
So what of our deception? The evolution of theatrical humbug? Landi Oshinowo’s Joice Heth – the old woman marketed as George Washington’s 161 year old nurse – has an aged timbre to her voice, but the physicality of a young and spry performer; the elephant Jumbo is, of course, not a real elephant; oversized props and stilt-walking characters create the effect of miniaturising Mikey Jay-Heath in his delightful turn as General Tom Thumb. We’re in on the illusions and tricks, making us question the truth of any moment.
There is also an awful lot of biography to fit in, and the manic rush from one life-changing moment to the next seems emptier and emptier with each display, until the circus venture comes to mask the biggest hole in Barnum’s life – the loss of his partner in dreams, difference, and love. But that’s another deception – circus as I know it is not a faceless spectacle, it’s an engagement with human feeling and presence; as the cast take their bows we’re brought back at last to this place, with a special appearance from producer Michael Harrison to surprise Conley with a celebratory cake in honour of his 600th performance at the Birmingham Hippodrome.
We leave clapping, whooping and smiling, but it’s not the full satisfaction of an emotionally rounded evening. Enjoyable as the night has been, I feel duped again. In a very meta way, Barnum uses all the rubric and rhetoric of its namesake to sell us The Greatest Show On Earth: The Musical.