Barnum (Chichester)

Timothy Sheader revives the classic Cy Coleman musical based on the life of showman P. T. Barnum in the temporary Theatre Tent at Chichester

Christopher Fitzgerald and company
Christopher Fitzgerald and company
© Michael Le Poer Trench

Where better to stage the musical about America’s greatest showman – the progenitor of the three-ring circus – than a big top? Chichester’s new theatrical space, in the park at the back of the theatre grounds, is a marvellous amphitheatre and director Timothy Sheader ensures that every available inch of space, horizontal and vertical is employed. There’s certainly little let-up; if you miss a juggler, a trapeze artist will bounce above your head minutes later.

With this feast of visual stimulation, in many ways Barnum is the perfect metaphor for the modern age. In an era where so many shows appeal to the lowest common denominator, Barnum’s métier was in selling the sizzle, rather than the sausage and it’s an approach that resonates with us today: As Joice Heth, the supposed nurse of George Washington sings about shows with an “educated pooch”, the spectre of Britain’s Got Talent flashed before my eyes.

I’d not seen Barnum before and was surprised at how little story there is; the whole shebang is nothing but a recap of many of the incidents in his life. It was a life of richness, with a remarkable amount of incident, but Mark Bramble‘s book (revised with help from Cameron Mackintosh) pays little attention to the dramatic possibilities – a (fictional) relationship with Swedish soprano (Anna O’Byrne) is hinted at but not really developed.

If the piece is short on plot, it does offer a host of tuneful Cy Coleman songs – it’s always a good sign when the audience come out whistling the numbers – and does contain an excellent central performance by Christopher Fitzgerald as the publicity-loving, scheming, Barnum. He’s a constant ball of energy, displaying a variety of show business skills including a climactic display of tightrope walking. It’s an attractive performance, and he has a natural affinity with the audience which helps mask the lack of a strong singing voice.

If there’s any overriding theme, it’s the contrast between Barnum’s exuberance and penchant for hyperbole and his more sober, circumspect wife, Chairy. Tamsin Carroll provides the necessary dose of reality, while never masking her undoubted love for her husband.

Barnum is an engaging romp with some decent songs and some strong central performances, but they’re not enough to sustain one of the weaker musicals that Chichester has staged recently.