Menier Chocolate Factory, London – until 3 March 2018
A MINI-CIRCUS AND A MISCASTING… A nice irony that this revival of this Mark Bramble / Cy Coleman / Michael Stewart musical about Phineas T Barnum should open now, just as David Attenborough reveals in a forthcoming TV doc that the great showman lied about the heroic death of his big elephant. And that it was a sad beast anyway, what with years of being ridden by Queen Victoria’s children.
But then, fake news – ‘humbug” – was a Barnum speciality, a fact merrily underlined in every song and in the constant playful, not to say saccharine, flirtations between Barnum and his cool-headed New England teacher wife Charity (Laura Pitt-Pulford, calmly excellent as ever). My favourite humbug, actually my favourite line in this frustratingly frothy account of Barnum’s career, was his solution to the problem of people staying too long in his “American Museum” to gawp at the freaks and exhibits. He just put up a sign saying “To the Egress”. So everyone flocked through in the hope, perhaps, of a giant eagle or an ogress. And ended up back in the street paying again.
There are such moments of glee, and – in the Menier’s elaborate canvassy, larky circus-ring set – plenty to enjoy as pure spectacle. Officially the star is Marcus Brigstocke, best known as a Radio 4 standup comedian: but actually, the real star is the ensemble. Tumbling, somersaulting, dancing, marching with fifes and euphonium, swinging perilously near the coloured bulbs of the ceiling, they are joyful and nimble as otters. Only with coloured tights and spangles.
Director Gordon Greenberg pulls no elf n’ safety punches, and the movement by Rebecca Howell and Scott Maidment (for the circus turns) is terrific, fluent and startling. Brigstocke himself has a circus moment when he is required – to illustrate the dangerous temptation of a liaison with Jennie Lind the Swedish Nightingale – to end the first half by walking a tightrope. Apparently the night before press day he crossed the stage in one go, but tonight he fell off twice, covering himself wittily enough (“I hope none of you have ordered interval drinks”) and finally holding on to a real acrobat’s hand for the last wobbly leg.
He cannot actually sing very well, and we hear few words in the patter songs: the contrast with Pitt-Pulford’s assured musical-theatre skill is a bit awkward, though nobody beats the coloratura belting of Celinde Schoenmaker as Jennie Lind. But in a way the show’s weakest point is Bramble’s book itself: we have grown used to darker, more Weimar-ish uses of circus as metaphor, and expect a bit more jeopardy than this provides. There’s a setback when Barnum’s museum burns down, but our ploddingly smiling, one-note hero gets over that in about 20 seconds (Brigstocke is not a subtle performer). The second jeopardy – the Lind temptation – again elicits no sign of real emotion either in him or his wife.
Indeed the moment of most thrilling jeopardy came on press night, when the magnificent band parade fills the room and Barnum-Brigstocke has to get a couple of audience members to play the kazoo. The first he picked on was, naturally, Quentin Letts of the Mail , who in a recent book described him as part of a Radio 4 comedy cadre – “as predictable as the tides…they pretend to be poor, hold a sardonic view of manners, a negative attitude to the United States, have slumped shoulders, a secular contempt for religion and a probable hygiene problem”. Surely..gasp..our hero can’t have read that? Anyway, Mr Letts primly refused the kazoo. The Evening Standard took on the challenge instead. One can’t expect edgy insider moments like that every night, but on the whole it’s not bad fun, absolutely a family show. Left me wanting to know a lot more about Barnum in both showbiz and his political career than it offered, and that’s a start.
box office 0207 378 1713 to 3 March