Menier Chocolate Factory once again proves that bigger isn’t better, presenting a lively, immersive staging of classic 1980 musical Barnum.
The season of Barnum coincides with the current big screen release The Greatest Showman, and the storytelling elements between the two versions of the life of show business impresario P. T. Barnum marry quite well. Hearing the gloriously hummable Cy Coleman score again certainly raises the question as to why Hollywood producers commissioned a new score when this toe-tapping beauty already existed.
In an interview in the program, Barnum’s book writer Mark Bramble states that the great man only mentioned his wife Charity twice in his autobiography. Liberal use of artistic licence has created a Charity in the new movie who comes from far grander origins than the salt of the earth soul in the musical. The musical also covers more ground, moving on to cover Barnum’s political aspirations and Charity’s death.
The annual Menier Christmas musical is highly anticipated, and the theatre has gone above and beyond in creating a sense of occasion. The foyer has been made over on calico adorned with images and messages related to the show. The intimate auditorium has been been decked out like the inside of a red and white striped circus tent, with the audience seated right around the central ring.
Designer Paul Farnsworth adopts a gritty tone, using festive colours but avoiding the temptation to glamorise the costumes and sets much beyond what could hav been achieved in the mid-1800s.
Director Gordon Greenberg makes terrific use of the space, working closely with choreographer Rebecca Howell to provide a cavalcade of visual action. The ensemble are the absolute stars fo the show, trained in circus-styles feats but also delivering the usual singing and dancing expected of a chorus. The show really takes flight in full company numbers such as “Come Follow the Band” (which cleverly features the show’s band on stage) and “Join the Circus.”
On the other hand, at the show’s centre where there should be a supernova there is, unfortunately, more of a black hole. Barnum is one of musical theatre’s great leading roles, and has been played by the likes of Jim Dale, Michael Crawford and Reg Livermore. Marcus Brigstocke uses most of his energy remembering to be sure to alternately face the audience in each direction. His singing is ordinary and his acting is basic. Most disappointingly, at this performance Brigstocke fell three times in the climactic act one wire walk and had to finish the journey holding on to a chorus boy’s hand.
Laura Pitt-Pulford is a delight as Charity, bringing palpable warmth tho the role and singing beautifully. Charity anchors “One Brick at a Time,” and Pitt-Pulford leads the big number with great flair.
Celinde Schoenmaker sounds every bit the Swedish nightingale as opera singer Jenny Lind.
Harry Francis delivers a sensational solo dance as he performs Tom Thumb’s song “Bigger isn’t Better.” Topele Dorgu fairly oozes with confidence and style as she performs Joice Heth’s “Thank God I’m Old” and later sings the lead vocal in “Black and White.”
London based fans of musical theatre should not stop at one P. T. Barnum musical this winter. Barnum is a melodic treat, and the ensemble really brings the show to life.
Barnum was reviewed 8pm Tuesday 9 January 2018 at Menier Chocolate Factory, London where it plays until 3 March 2018.
Photos: Nobby Clark