“If I present an educated pooch
Who’s trained to dance the hoochie cooch
What better way to waste a bit of time”
We’re so used now to the big Chichester musicals making the automatic leap into the West End that it was something of a surprise to hear that last year’s Barnum would not be getting the much-rumoured transfer even with less than stellar reviews. And seeing the show for the first time tonight in its retooled version – Jean Pierre Van Der Spuy directing an adaptation of Timothy Sheader and Liam Steel’s CFT production – which is heading out on a very extensive UK tour that stretches to next August, it is not hugely difficult to see why, if one looks at it with a coolly dispassionate eye.
Mark Bramble’s book has showman PT Barnum following his dreams to put on the world’s first travelling circus but little dramatic impetus to form a more interesting narrative journey. And Cy Coleman’s score with Michael Stewart’s lyrics has some pleasant enough songs in it – ‘Come Follow The Band’ and ‘There’s A Sucker Born Every Minute’ – but it also has a lot of filler; for such an ambitious show, it is a rather bland musical experience. Fortunately it is also blessed with some game-changing visuals and Andrew Wright’s peerless (certainly for his generation) choreographic gifts.
The spell is begun to be cast with the 10 minutes or so of pre-show entertainment which is most definitely unmissable and throughout the show, Wright combines gymnastics and acrobatics (check out Landi Oshinowo, wow!) with dance in a seamless blend that elevates the scale of the whole show – knowing that the next ingenious circus trick (Juliette Hardy-Donaldson’s work as circus consultant is very well judged) is just around the corner is more than enough to get you through any of the drearier numbers, no matter how well played they are by the hard-working band under Ian Townsend’s musical direction.
As Barnum, Brian Conley slips into the role of all-round entertainer effortlessly, to the point where one isn’t entirely sure if he’s actually acting or just shooting the breeze as if at a comedy show. It’s a cheesy but charming combination that mostly works, it’s just a shame that Linzi Hateley has little to do of any real substance as his wife Chairy as what she does do is top notch. Highlights in the ensemble include a Kimberly Blake’s striking and flirtatious opera singer and Mikey Jay-Heath’s Tom Thumb and along with the visual excitement of the next big trick to pulled out of the big top, there’s enough here in the production to mostly compensate for the thinness of the material.