With the success of the film The Greatest Showman, also about nineteenth century theatrical impresario P.T.Barnum, the time should be ripe for this revival of Cy Coleman’s 1980 hit show. This is a whistle stop biography of the biggest barker in show business, rattling past his eventful life courtesy of Mark Bramble’s concisely structured book. With a big top themed design, by Paul Farnsworth, the stage is set for an extravaganza worthy of the man himself. There’s a lot of skill on stage and off so it’s a surprise and a shame that this production never reaches its full potential.
A multi-talented ensemble, many with breath taking circus skills, are impossible to fault. There’s a tremendous turn from Harry Francis as Tom Thumb, and an excellent performance from Celinde Shoenmaker as the famous singer Jenny Lind. The direction from Gordon Greenberg is accomplished, alongside Rebecca Howell’s choreography, it’s notable how well the theatre-in-the-round staging is handled. As for Coleman, there are some great show tunes here, truly rousing numbers you go away humming. To top it all is Laura Pitt-Pulford, as Barnum’s aptly named spouse Charity. Featuring large in his story – well done Bramble – Pitt-Pulford crafts a developed performance that gives a real sense of the character throughout her life. And she sounds great. Unfortunately, it’s a performance uncomfortably superior to Marcus Brigstocke who takes the title role.
Quite early into the show, Barnum notes that his “humbug” is old fashioned and that “educated” people won’t fall for his sales technique anymore. But what could create sympathy distances us from a potential hero. Even if Barnum’s politics were progressive, his affair with Lind strikes a sour note right before the interval – it’s enough to put you off your ice cream. There simply isn’t enough charm here and the fault falls with Brigstocke. We never get past the well-known comedian’s personality – a nice way of saying he can’t act. And while some adlibs around audience participation, including a painful attempt at tightrope walking, are fun Brigstocke doesn’t land the jokes in the show. Yes, he’s a funny man, but his Barnum isn’t funny. Worse still Brigstocke cannot sing. More specifically, his voice is weak and renders Michael Stewart’s patter lyrics, which should excite, inaudible. In short, he can tightrope walk better than he can act, and act better than he can sing, and he can’t walk the tightrope.
Until 3 March 2018
Photo by Nobby Clark