Barnum – Review – Bradford Alhambra

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Barnum – Review

Bradford Alhambra, November 2014

by Sandra Callard

Phineas Taylor Barnum, ‘The World’s Greatest Showman’, was once also known as ‘The Most Famous Person in America’. He became America’s second millionaire. If ever a personality deserves his story in lights, it’s Barnum. And here we have it. With Cameron Mackintosh and Michael Harrison bringing a new touring production of Barnum to the stage, thirty years after it made its first appearance.

barnum review bradford theatreThe show starts before we are even in our seats. A dozen or so circus performers career through the auditorium, juggling, standing on each others’ shoulders, showing off their muscles, and generally giving us a taste of what is to come. The Alhambra Theatre in Bradford excels at providing the right atmosphere before a show. Music from Barnum is piped through to the auditorium, the bars and elsewhere in the theatre to set the mood. It does the trick. By the time the curtain rises we are ready for it.

This time we have Brian Conley playing Barnum. Conley himself is a showman of the first degree. He carries the role well. He has great stage presence and energy. His interaction with the audience is clever without breaking the fourth wall. Barnum has some great songs, but, unfortunately, Conley is no singer. His rich and gravelly speaking voice is great for the part. But his singing voice is almost non-existent.

“A massive role”

It’s a shame because Barnum has some great songs. But Conley copes by speaking the words of the songs, with the occasional note thrown in. He also has the further problem of cultivating an American accent. Unfortunately he barely manages it. But he fills the stage with his big personality and his big voice. He is so loud and commanding, that you do listen to what he says, rather than how he says it. Barnum is a massive role. Conley is on stage for almost the entire show. But he somehow pulls it off  – and with some style. Even to the extent of executing a brilliant tightrope walk.

Linzi Hateley gives a stellar performance as Barnum’s feisty, but loving and supportive wife, Chairy. She’s a good and competent singer. She sings the beautiful song, ‘Colours of My Life’, which occurs throughout the musical, movingly. Hateley and Conley’s ruminative renderings do tug at the heart strings. The talented ensemble need to be actors, dancers, acrobats, singers and circus performers. Well, they are all of these things. They work hard with great enthusiasm.

“Toe-tapping bonanza”

barnum review bradfordThe 16 or so songs and musical numbers in the show are outstanding, and with Michael Stuart providing evocative lyrics and Cy Coleman offering such a cracking score, I am surprised that the songs are not more widely known. The overture and finale, ‘Come Follow the Band’, is a stirring, toe-tapping bonanza of a song, and is the only one that I knew instantly.

The sets, props and costumes are good. The various acts that Barnum presents to a startled audience are brilliantly done, my favourite being the tiny General Tom Thumb. With outsize furniture, and other members of the cast, including Barnum, walking about on stilts, the whole thing is clever and funny, and Tom Thumb does indeed look tiny. A giant elephant, however, represented by two large legs and a trunk spouting water, is not so clever – but it still makes the audience laugh.

There are a few failings in the show, not least the jumping in time as Barnham is suddenly dabbling in politics, and his unexplored affair with Swedish singer, Jenny Lind. But it was a full house, the cast gave one hundred per cent, and the audience loved it.

images: Johan Persson

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