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Barnum review at Menier Chocolate Factory, London – ‘lacking in magic’

Marcus Brigstocke and the company of Barnum at Menier Chocolate Factory, London. Photo: Tristram Kenton Marcus Brigstocke and the company of Barnum at Menier Chocolate Factory, London. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Phineas Taylor Barnum lived a large life. The salesman, showman, promoter, impresario and would-be politician – who probably didn’t say “there’s a sucker born every minute” but helped perpetuate the idea – is a character and a half.

Cy Coleman and Michael Stewart’s 1980 Broadway musical focuses on his exploits before his Bailey days (they didn’t team up until Barnum was in his 60s). It sketches in some key incidents in his career – his tour with the dwarf General Tom Thumb, his marketing of an elderly former slave as the Oldest Woman in the World, his attempt to play it straight by promoting the popular opera singer Jenny Lind, known as the Swedish nightingale – but only scratches the surface of the man.

Marcus Brigstocke gives an amiable and game performance as Barnum, but he’s miscast. While he’s good at improv and kazoo-related audience interaction, he just doesn’t have the charisma or the chutzpah to convince as America’s showman supreme. He won’t be fooling Penn and Teller any time soon and there are stronger singers on stage. He has a good go at the tightrope scene, in which he’s obliged to sing one of the show’s big numbers while walking a high-wire. And then he has another go. And then another. You can’t fault him for trying. And you like him for it too.

Laura Pitt-Pulford brings typical delicacy and richness of voice to Barnum’s wife Charity. Her emotional range is greater and she gives their relationship warmth and depth. The two have decent chemistry and it ends up being this portrait of a complex but fundamentally loving marriage that leaves the strongest impression.

Director Gordon Greenberg tackles the task of cramming the wonder of the big top into such a small space by throwing everything he can at the production, acrobats, stilt walkers and fire-eaters, with the ensemble all kitted out in frilly petticoats and unconvincing tattoo-sleeves. This big group numbers, like second act opener Come Follow the Band are upbeat and effective, Harry Francis is nimble and balletic as Tom Thumb, and Celinde Schoenmaker has an appropriately chandelier-shattering voice as Lind.

Paul Farnsworth has staged the show in-the-round and made a semi-circus tent of the Menier Chocolate Factory, draping the space in red and white fabric. Most of the action takes place on a small circular stage in the middle of the room. There are some lovely details to the design (including one lovely visual punch line as you leave the theatre).

It’s easy to see why there’s renewed interest in Barnum, master of truth manipulation that he was. But this is a thin affair, insubstantial as a puff of smoke, and sadly lacking in magic.

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Marcus Brigstocke stars in a small-scale version of the American musical that suffers from a want of wonder and showmanship