P.T Barnum was a dreamer, the ‘humbug prince’. Humbugs being tall stories, hype and showmanship. Founder of the Barnum and Bailey Circus and purveyor of fake mermaids, Siamese twins and bearded ladies, Barnum personified the American dream: people really will buy anything if you can glitter it up. His famous epitaph ‘There is a sucker born every minute’ is the opening song of the Broadway musical of his life, here presented in Paul Farnsworth’s enchanting transformation of the chocolate factory into big top. Hollywood might have millions of dollars and Hugh Jackman for its Barnum story, The Greatest Showman, out in the US this Christmas, but screw Hollywood! We’ve got the magic of live theatre! Puppets! Kazoos played by theatre critics*! And Radio 4 comedians!
One of these things is not like the other things. One of these things is brilliant in its own field but doesn’t quite work in a singing circus. And no, it’s not the puppets. As a musical, it so nearly comes together. The energy of the circus is right there in the forceful ensemble, Rebecca Howell’s choreography and Scott Maidment’s circus direction that manages to steer clear of cheesy. But Barnum needs to be the lynchpin that holds the show together, the great impresario that should sweep us along with his castles in the sky – and Marcus Brigstocke is just not that man. He can carry a tune but when in duet with Laura Pitt-Pulford as Barnum’s wife Charity, he is completely sung off the stage. I wish I could say that he throws himself into the part and compensates for this but I just can’t. The impression is of everyone else working incredibly hard around him whilst he makes vague gestures of love towards Charity and the femme fatale, Swedish nightingale Jenny Lind (Celinde Schoenmaker). Such is the presence and vocal power of these two brilliant actresses you find yourself hoping for a radical rewrite in Act two that sees them elope to found their own epic show. They can take the mermaid with them, she’s awesome.
More and more I found myself ignoring Barnum in favour of his menagerie of freaks and talent. I could watch a whole show of husband and wife acrobats Kelsey Jamieson & Preston Jamieson alone. The pair spin and somersault with a quick wink to each other, as heart melting as it is impressive. Harry Francis as General Tom Thumb steals the show with ‘Bigger isn’t Better’. If the real Tom Thumb had anything close to Francis’s full voiced, pirouetting Nureyev glory, I’m not surprised that Queen Victoria was reportedly so impressed.
The culmination of Act One sees Brigstocke attempt to walk a low slung high wire across the stage whilst singing big number ballad ‘Love Makes Such Fools of Us All’. There is no reason that Brigstocke, whose stand up and contributions to The Now Show I thoroughly enjoy, should be able to walk a tightrope. Fish and bicycles and all that, game on him for trying. Yet, having watched him attempt it four times, before giving up and being assisted across, I couldn’t help but wonder if this was a perfect visual allegory for what is often wrong in our stage and screen industries. I suspect that any of the talented ensemble could have easily mastered the feat but instead here we were applauding Brigstocke standing on one leg whilst being literally held up by a more capable cast member. Bigger isn’t always better, especially when applied to star miscasting.
Barnum is on until 3 March 2018 at the Menier Chocolate Factory. Click here for more details.
* The press night spectacle of the charming Henry Hitchings and Fiona Mountford playing kazoos with jubilant aplomb after Quentin Letts refused, has cemented it for me that the Daily Mail critic job description just reads ‘must be actual Scrooge (pre-haunting)’.