The Theatreguide.London Review
Menier Chocolate Factory Winter 2017-2018
Barnum is not a great show, but it is fun, and even a flawed production like this one can offer a good share of entertainment.
The 1980 musical (music by Cy Coleman, lyrics by Michael Stewart) tells a highly fictionalised version of the life and career of Phineas T. Barnum, nineteenth-century American impresario, freak show owner and circus operator.
What passes for a plot in Mark Bramble's book is built around the supposed opposition of Barnum's puritan wife to his wild plans (which in the show amounts to little more than some affectionate and indulgent tut-tutting) and a supposed (and very decorously presented) affair with singer Jenny Lind.
The real function of the show is as a vehicle for an attractive, energetic and irresistibly cheeky star – think of the young Tommy Steele or John Travolta. Or, for that matter, think of the young Jim Dale, for whom the Broadway production was written, or the young Michael Crawford, who played it in London.
Marcus Brigstocke, star of this revival, is a wry stand-up comic whose image is that of a lumbering if loveable teddy bear. Though he works admirably hard to squeeze himself into this role, he just can't, and remains something of a lumpen hub around which the fun spins.
Brigstocke can sing, enunciate his lyrics clearly and (with the aid of amplification) make himself heard over the orchestra – but never all at the same time. You occasionally get two of the three in some combination but generally have to settle for some one alone, with Stewart's lyrics the biggest loser.
Brigstocke doesn't dance or even move with much grace, and is frequently banished offstage when big numbers are coming. (It is possible for a big man to move beautifully – check Robert Preston in the film of The Music Man, for example)
The climax of Act One calls for the star to walk a tightrope across the stage, to symbolise the risks he's taking by starting the affair with Jenny Lind, and the script allows for the possibility that he might fall once and have to start over.
On this night Brigstocke fell twice and finally had to be helped across by a supporting chorus member. There's no shame in that, but it somehow encapsulates the overall sense of the dedicated actor just being wrong for the role.
The real stars of the show are choreographer Rebecca Howell and the energetic chorus, who do provide almost all the theatrical vitality of this production.
Howell not only creates inventive patterns for the dancers but incorporates the skills and personalities they individually bring, so that bits of tumbling, juggling, acrobatics and flirting with the audience are seamlessly and delightfully woven into the dances.
Laura Pitt-Pulford (Mrs B), Celinde Schoenmaker (Lind) and Dominic Owen (narrator) do what they can with the little the script gives them to do, and Harry Francis as Tom Thumb stops the show with a song and dance delivered with the boyish energy the musical really wants from its star.
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