WORTH A LOOK?: ****
WHERE: Menier Chocolate Factory
WHEN: 25/11, press night 5/12, runs to 3/3/18
We’re leafing through the programme, the morning after the first preview of this revival, and brightly-coloured ticker tape thrown by the cast keeps falling out.
- Read on for reasons including how Marcus Brigstocke performs as the leading man
It is the middle of the 19th century in America and showman P.T. Barnum (Brigstocke) introduces his circus acts as he explains how he uses the power of persuasion, or humbug as he calls it, to encourage the public to see his shows.
His wife Chairy (Laura Pitt-Pulford, singing beautifully and proving why she was nominated for an Olivier Award recently) despairs as he goes out on tour with a Swedish singer and the scene is set for a defining moment in the husband/wife relationship.
The most impressive thing about this production is how well thought out and staged it is. As we arrive in the Menier bar before the show, we are accosted by members of the cast in character as circus performers. The auditorium has been reconfigured and this production is in the round with a revolving circular stage at its heart.
The cast is peppered with acrobats, stilt walkers and fire jugglers. The reconfiguration means no one in the audience is more than half a dozen rows from the stage. It reminds us of the Old Vic’s 2016 production of High Society, with the cast exit and entering the stage in a blur of action through the aisles past the audience.
Harry Francis as Tom Thumb is impressively agile and the cast throw their utmost at the performance, giving out sweets and liberally sprinkling the audience in brightly coloured ticker tape at times.
We had reservations about the casting of Brigstocke here as we only really knew him for his TV panel show work. Despite not being the best singer (he wears a microphone during this performance), what he lacks in vocal power, he has spades of in charisma and is not afraid of throwing himself into the show’s trickiest set pieces.
He has three attempts to walk the tightrope during act one closer Out There – and fails to complete the walk each time but there’s still time to press night.
We thought the plot of Barnum quite thin but the orchestra is excellent and it’s during act two opener Come Follow The Band, when the musicians literally take to the stage to circle the central podium and encourage others to follow them, that the piece works best.
Like the ticker tape that is still falling from our programme, it’s the showbiz pizzazz and spectacle of Barnum that lingers longest in the memory.