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REVIEW: Barnum | Palace Theatre

Joan Davies on Brian Conley's portrayal of the legendary circus impresario

Written by . Published on November 10th 2014.

REVIEW: Barnum | Palace Theatre

ENTERTAINER Brian Conley is currently drawing crowds to The Palace Theatre in a touring revival of Barnum, a tale of the life of the legendary showman and circus impresario Phineas Taylor Barnum.

Suitably for the role of Barnum he has a gift for audience engagement and cements his audience relationship at the outset. I suggest you don’t sit in the front row if you’re bald.

This is a revival by Cameron Mackintosh and the excellent Chichester Festival Theatre of a show which first appeared in the different world of the eighties and was made famous in the UK by Michael Crawford’s tightrope walking and Torvill and Dean’s use of its livelier tunes for their pre-Olympic World Championship ice dance.

Barnum (Photo By Johan Persson)Barnum (Photo By Johan Persson)

It’s a lively and entertaining show held together by endearing performances, particularly from Conley, and a tight ensemble who open the show with Victorian style acrobatics and juggling in the auditorium, and continue their feats on stage.

Conley can act, dance and walk a tightrope; his singing is more of a rasp, but with great diction, timing and delivery. Suitably for the role of Barnum he has a gift for audience engagement and cements his audience relationship at the outset. I suggest you don’t sit in the front row if you’re bald. 

Versatile performer Linzi Hateley gives a strong performance as his wife Chairy Barnum, a critical yet supportive wife with a practical approach to problems, while Kimberley Blake has the stunning voice necessary to carry the part of Jenny Lind, the famed ‘Swedish Nightingale’ whose reception on arrival in America set the standard for The Beatles to follow over one hundred years later.

The original writer, Mark Bramble, has worked on the revised production with Cameron Mackintosh, keeping the 1980s music by Cy Coleman and lyrics by Michael Stewart. Costumes, particularly those of the performers, are superbly designed by Paul Wills. The orchestra under the musical direction of Ian Townsend, a former Chetham’s School of Music pupil, is superb. Choreography is interesting, neither entirely modern nor entirely period, there’s plenty to watch and it’s rarely predictable; I certainly didn’t predict three women handing upside down with umbrellas during one song.

Barnum (Photo By Johan Persson)Barnum (Photo By Johan Persson)

While performances and design are strong, the weakness of the show lies at the core. The story – showman makes money, loses it, makes money again – is neither particularly dramatic nor enlightening. The character strengths, working hard, being optimistic, taking risks, and the weaknesses, working too hard, being over-optimistic and taking the wrong risks, are hardly unfamiliar.

Nevertheless the production succeeds in entertaining, and the cast work their best with the material. Conley in particular is able to take the slight opportunities within a fairly predictable story arc to provide more than glimpses of the less-obvious character facets of a man who appears at first hand to have exploited both the public and performers, yet spent time as a principled politician: campaigning against slavery was one of his major themes.

Barnum runs at The Palace Theatre Manchester from Tuesday 4 to Saturday 15 November 2014. Tickets here.

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