Inverleith Church Hall (Venue 120): Fri 7 – Sat 15 Aug 2015
Featuring a huge variety of talents and radiating the joy of putting on a show, Forth Children’s Theatre’s Barnum at Inverleith Church Hall may not quite be the Greatest Show on Earth but is surely worth a dime of anyone’s money. Or a great deal more than a dime, if it comes to that.
Cy Coleman, Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble’s 1980 musical tells of the celebrated huckster, hustler, hoaxer and humbugger (and politician, it should perhaps go without saying) Phineas Taylor Barnum. Despite its initial success, it is not a show that has often been seen, at least until a recent touring Cameron Mackintosh production.
One reason for this lack of visibility is the necessity of the cast adding circus skills to acting, singing and dancing. This makes it an impossibility for most non-professional companies, while the expense involved in production is an almost insurmountable difficulty at professional level. Here, the ensemble rise to the challenge superbly, with clowning, tumbling, juggling, acrobatics and stilt-walking discharged with aplomb. Had Health and Safety permitted, I am sure we would have had fire-eating too.
The title character has to be a song-and-dance-man who is equally adept at physical clowning – Jim Dale and Michael Crawford being the originals on Broadway and the West End. Charlie West is already a performer of charm and versatility, and here he adds conjuring, clowning, tightrope-walking and some hugely energetic skipping to his list of talents, making everything seem absurdly natural and turning the Prince of Humbug into a thoroughly likeable figure.
Another explanation for the musical’s relative obscurity is – whisper it – it is not the most distinguished affair. Even the patronage of Torvill and Dean failed to turn any of the tunes into standards, while the story defies rational analysis. Despite the use of circus elements, the most celebrated episode of Barnum’s life – the founding of the Barnum and Bailey Circus – only occurs in the finale. Much of the plot concerns the relationship between Barnum and his more strait-laced wife Charity – but, since they are already married at the show’s opening, this is an oddly static affair.
Nevertheless, West and Esther Scott as Charity invest their duets with believability and chemistry, with Scott’s ability to mine even the most unpromising of material for emotional depth a real bonus. It is unfortunate that director and choreographer Cameron Dyer has made some of these numbers a little too busy, with the two of them seemingly always having to have something to do that keeps them moving around stage. Their final and simplest duet, largely sung side by side, is noticeably the most affecting.
The determination to keep things in constant movement largely pays off, with Join The Circus, with its dizzying parade of skills, and the opener There’s A Sucker Born Every Minute being particularly good examples of how to deploy an ensemble of over 40 with real snap and panache. One Brick At A Time’s tumbling and synchronised brick-throwing similarly makes no concessions to levels of difficulty, with excellent results.
Perhaps Dyer spreads himself a little too thin in both directing and choreographing, as while the standard of performance is largely high, it is not universally so. Second half opener Come Follow The Band – the nearest thing Barnum usually has to a showstopper – is noticeably lacking something in togetherness and conviction. This is only a temporary blip, with the second act tearing along at creditable speed, enhanced greatly by two numbers led by Gus Harrower as both a blues singer and Barnum’s prospective partner Mr Bailey.
Other subsidiary roles are often little more than walk-ons, but it would be immediately obvious were any of the performers not up to scratch. Magnus Kramers, Reuben Woolard, Alex Gordon, Emily Jackson and Eilidh Park all maintain the extremely high standard of performance.
Those who do get their own numbers also seize their moment – Hayley Scott’s Thank God I’m Old, features an impeccable oldest-woman-in-the-world dance, while Ben King’s Bigger Isn’t Better as General Tom Thumb is genuinely affecting. Harmony Rose-Bremner’s turn as the Swedish Nightingale Jenny Lind is almost frightening both in its glacially aloof representation of the archetypal prima donna and some truly extraordinary operatic singing.
The band, under the direction of Monica Reeves, are energetic and skilled, while whoever was responsible for voice coaching should take pride in the standard of the accents.
A word, too, for Ronan Rafferty’s Ringmaster. There’s something about him that seems to encapsulate the joys and challenges of performance, a paradoxical combination of the limits of artifice and the endless possibilities it still contains, a wide-eyed glee that still contains the foreboding of tragedies to come. This sums up not only the spirit of Barnum, but also the spirit of Forth Children’s Theatre, and of a production whose infectious joy comes highly recommended.
Running time 2 hours
Inverleith Church Hall (Venue 15) 41-43 Inverleith Gardens, EH3 5PR
Friday 7 – Saturday 15 August 2015
Daily (not Sunday) at 7.30 pm; Saturday matinee at 2.30 pm
Book tickets on the EdFringe website: https://tickets.edfringe.com/whats-on/barnum
Company website: https://forthchildrenstheatre.wordpress.com/
Buy the music to Barnum on Amazon: