Barnum, starring Brian Conley and Linzi Hateley, at Theatre Royal Newcastle, until Saturday, February 28.
It would be a monumental cliché, worthy of the big top itself, to kick off my review of a circus-based show with the words Roll up, roll up!
But I had such a good time that I don’t care and roll up, roll up you should to Cameron Mackintosh’s touring production of Barnum, starring the irrepressible Brian Conley.
It’s a thrilling musical with all the vibrancy, colour, energy and humour required to banish any late-winter blues.
There are unexpected twists and gyrations, though, that set it apart from your run-of-the mill musical.
It is based on the life of showman Phineas Taylor (PT) Barnum who made a fortune out of hoodwinking (or ‘humbugging’) a gullible American public into paying to see a collection of hoax ‘freaks’ – a mermaid, 160-year-old Joice Heth and General Tom Thumb, ‘the Smallest Man That Ever Walked Alone’, among them. Although, in this adaptation, his long-suffering wife Chairy gets her own back with a two-headed coin that makes sure she gets the upper hand in their disputes – heads, it’s yes!
His was not a conventional life – he bought a museum to house his curios, dabbled in politics and flirted with one of his acts, operatic singer Jenny Lind, dubbed the Swedish songbird. When his museum burnt down and Chairy died he also experienced despair.
And so this is not your usual rags-to-riches musical, more a riches-to-rags-and-back-to-riches-for-a-happy-ending type of show, a proper emotional rollercoaster.
Conley portrayed this enigmatic character with the aplomb of a born entertainer. After a warm-up sequence of circus performers mingling with the audience, sharing magic tricks, juggling, walking on the backs of chairs and on their hands, which results in pockets of cheers from erupting from all over the auditorium, came his chance to take centre-stage.
He grabbing it with both hands, turning it briefly into the Brian Conley Show and showing his wonderful ability to interact with the audience, without the use of a safety net, and raise a laugh simply with that cheeky-chappie grin of his.
Last night, he picked on Aaron, who oddly thought the difference between Indian and African elephants was one was an animal and the other a human, and Audrey, both in the front row. He said to Audrey: “It’s rude to ask a lady her age, so how much do you weigh?” to which she retorted: “Not as much as my age!” It brought the house down and set the scene for much of the first half, which was impossible to watch without a smile on your face, and Aaron and Audrey became the talk of the Toon.
The impressive acrobatic feats, dancing and singing were worth the ticket money alone. Every amateur and junior group in the land has taken on Barnum, complete with a series of circus workshops, but this was the real deal.
Dazzling renditions of some great little numbers, like Come Follow the Band, There Is A Sucker Born Ev’ry Minute, One Brick at a Time and Tom Thumb’s Bigger Isn’t Better, kept the feet tapping and widened that grin.
The second act was a more sombre affair after an initial blast of Come Follow the Band but it left you gladdened once Join The Circus and the rousing finale had kicked in.
I had been impressed with Conley as Edna Turnblad in Hairspray and Caractacus Potts in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and he was every bit as good in this.
I also had the privilege of seeing the great Michael Crawford as Barnum back in the ’80s and, while no one will ever top his level of performance, Conley came pretty close, although the severe vocal demands of the role seemed to have taken its toll on his singing a little.
His perfectly-executed high-wire act had hearts in mouths and pulses racing, until he reached the other side safely to prompt the evening’s loudest cheer.
The supporting cast was superb, Linzi Hateley, as Barnum’s missus, particularly catching the eye. Her strong voice and sharp acting made her a joy to watch.
I also enjoyed Mikey Jay-Heath’s Tom Thumb and bluesy Landi Oshinowo as the ancient Joice Heth, while Kimberly Blake’s voice as Jenny Lind is pure and stunning.
I wouldn’t describe Barnum as the greatest show on earth but it’s up there with the best. Would I recommend seeing it? Heads it’s yes!