Barnum (tour – Manchester)

The performances and the actual production lift the piece, says Craig Hepworth.

© Johan Persson

Let's get the not so good out of the way first shall we, the musical Barnum has never been a 'great' musical, with its slight book that barely touches on the life of the man, through to the score, that whilst pleasant is not often considered memorable.

That being said, the show has a quirky quality and creative possibilities that make this revival seem like a great idea to all involved, and whilst the book has been tweaked the show still feels somewhat empty, the staging however is marvellous.

The show tells the story of Phineas T Barnum, a man in the circus business despite his wife's wishes, working with talents such as the oldest woman alive, Joice Heth, the tiny Tom Thumb and the famous Swedish opera singer, Jenny Lind, the show follows him through his life as an entertainer to politician and all the drama in between.

On paper the idea of a musical based on his life and story is a great one, but here we barely skim the surface of what made him so well loved, you desperately want to know more and when it does start to go deeper, the story is often halted by the score itself. Where the show does succeed however is during the husband and wife moments, the book serves the relationship as well as it can, but the performances really make it spring to life.

The direction by Jean- Pierre Van Der Spuy and choreography by Andrew Wright is so slick and tight that, perhaps the biggest trick that Barnum creates is making you forget about the shortcomings in the material. In fact everybody who has worked on the costumes, lighting, set design and the circus consultant should be applauded, as it's through their work and that of the hard working cast that enables you to leave the show with a huge smile on your face.

The circus work including walking on a tight rope (expertly pulled off by Conley) to stunning silk and acrobatic work is impressive and had the audience gasping with delight. The real stars of the show however are the hard working performers, who give it their all.

Brian Conley as Barnum oozes likeability and charm, his own personality is perfectly in synch with the character making him a pleasure to watch. His singing however is a different story, choosing to talk most of the songs and at times shout, desperately takes the emotion away from the music played by the glorious band. Many audience members in the interval were chattering about the fact that he might have been ill. That being said, his acting and chutzpah still shine through. making him the perfect Barnum.

Equally impressive is the West End star Linzi Hateley as Chairy Barnum, her glorious voice and perfect chemistry with Conley makes for the best scenes in the show. All the cast should be congratulated however, especially the hard working and multi talented ensemble.

Barnum as a piece of a theatre isn't a show that will stay with you long after you see it, however the production and cast most certainly will.

Barnum continues at the Palace Theatre until 15 November.