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Review of Barnum at The Churchill Theatre Bromley

BARNUM company. Photo by Johan Persson
BARNUM company
Photo by Johan Persson

Cameron Mackintosh seems to be on a rampage through the country at the moment, resurrecting his most successful and lesser known shows and giving them a new lease of life. Barnum is one of those to get the treatment, and the fact that it’s been on tour for several months already certainly shows in the polish of the performance.

Brian Conley is the famous frontman playing the titular role, and he brings a certain showmanship to the evening. His off-the-cuff improvisation with the crowd is more akin to a stand-up comedy show than a traditional stage-show, but it works marvellously, and the audience respond to his witty impromptu remarks. If anything, his cheeky, crowd-pleasing personality works better than some of the scripted material, so it’s certainly an inspired directorial move to continue the breaking of the fourth-wall throughout the show.

The choreography is ingenious, and the exceedingly good circus skills of the supporting cast are by far the highlight of the evening. Not a single juggling ball, acrobatic leap or burning torch was out of place, and given the sheer quantity of how much incredible content is happening on stage, this is an astounding feat. By the end of the night, you’ll feel more as though you’ve witnessed the actual circus event due to the spectacular showcases and set designs rather than a piece of musical theatre, but this is no bad thing and what I suspect this revamped revival tour is trying to capture.

One of Barnum’s most famed moments in particular – the ‘tight rope’ scene should be enough of a hint – is one of the most well received. I’ve never quite experience an auditorium collectively wait with bated breath as happened here. The risk factor pays off to a rapturous reception for Conley from the audience.

BARNUM - Linzi Hateley as Chairy, Brian Conley as PT Barnum. And company.  <br/>Photo by Johan Persson
BARNUM – Linzi Hateley as ‘Chairy’, Brian Conley as ‘PT Barnum’ and company. Photo by Johan Persson

Whilst the musical numbers are on the whole delivered with gusto, with Landi Oshinowo (Blues Singer) and Mikey Jay-Heath (Tom Thumb) being particular vocal highlights, there’s only so much that can be done with the composition that’s already there – it’s a traditional, easy-going melodic style with nothing too out-the-way. It’s the visual aspects that do impress upon the memory the most. The show manipulates itself so that there’s reason to utilise as many circus tropes as possible; you’ll see high stilts, fire-eating, all the expected talents. The energy and ability of the supporting cast in these respects is probably best shown by the mid-Act One number ‘One Brick at a Time’, which is thoroughly enthusing – watch as the wonderfully elaborate set shocks you at the climax.

It really cannot be emphasised enough exactly how much effort the chorus put into this show, and that they are as vital to its success as the leading characters. From the pre-curtain bantering in the auditorium to the aerial acrobatics, there are some exceptionally talented individuals on display. I suspect there aren’t many productions where juggling batons and being nimble with a diablo come in useful, but every moment of every number fills the stage with another feat to hold your attention.

You’ll be granted a solid, entertaining night at this new tour of Barnum, and its best asset is possibly its wide-spread appeal. I can see this production being a great hit with families with younger children, whilst being so polished and exuberant as to entertain the entire family. The plot may be slightly thin but you won’t miss it much with everything else it has to offer. Barnum is at the Churchill Theatre Bromley until Saturday 21st March, until continuing on its nationwide tour.

Three and a half gold stars

Review by Ash Benzaiten

A Cameron Mackintosh and Michael Harrison Production

Music by Cy Coleman
Lyrics by Michael Stewart
Book by Mark Bramble
Directed by Stephen Whitson
Cast Includes: Brian Conley, Linzi Hateley, Kimberly Blake, Landi Oshinowo, Mikey Jay-Heath, John Stacey, Georgie Ashford, Greg Bernstein, David Birch, Nick Butcher, Alison Connell, Stefan Dermendjiev, Silvia Dopazo, Chris Gage, Joanna Goodwin, Pascal Haering, Rebecca Hawkins, Erin Jameson, Courtney-Mae Briggs, Jennifer Robinson, Louis Stockil, Lucy Thatcher, Edward Wade.

Wednesday 18th March 2015


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