Phineas T Barnum proclaimed he ran the greatest show on earth and this week brought that to New Victoria Theatre, Woking.
How do you make a musical about a larger than life but nevertheless real man? It seems you make it big and you make it an event that starts before the curtain has even been raised.
On taking seats, the New Victoria Theatre auditorium is filled with show people, juggling amongst and with, the audience, walking on their hands, climbing the seats, leaning over the balconies making shapes in the air with banners and streamers, giving the atmosphere of a bustling busy circus. Usually the only tension inducing activity before any show is apologising as people have to stand up for you to reach your seat while you balance a bag, cup and coats trying not to bash the people on the row in front on the head with your stuff (sharp intake of breath as you balance all that – Human Buckeroo – will that last item be one too many?! CRACKERJACK!) The skill of turning your phone off in time, the decisions (ooooohhh!) as you look at your phone thinking ‘airplane mode or fully off?’ (aaahhhhh!) It’s exhausting before you even sit down and now someone is walking on their hands!! In a theatre!! At the side!! on the steps!! OK everyone JUST CALM DOWN! Actually let’s park the word ‘calm’ for a couple of hours, even if written in block capitals – like shouting.
Brian Conley is a great choice to play P.T Barnum he manages to personalise the role where he interacts in a way that the public know him as himself and yet remain authentic to the part. At the beginning he jokes and speaks to individual audience members making the whole auditorium part of the show as any good circus owner would. He talks of the Humbug – what some would call lies, others call marketing, he says the ‘sucker is born every minute’ and colourfully displays that he is right to the end of the show and yet it isn’t cynical he believes in these shows himself, and the authentic love of the character for the larger than life, the amazing, the incredible shines through.
Linzi Hateley is absolutely brilliant as Chairy Barnum, the dynamic between her and Conley makes them a very believable married couple. The moment when the showman’s wranglers reveal what they consider to be the most fearful and ferocious creature known to man is the only time Barnum quakes and hides behind his ringmaster with good reason as he receives the individual wrath of the said ‘creature’ revealed.
Both play out their relationship in a touching and complementary way. You hope that it was true that she had such an input to his success and that in fact it seems had society been different it would have been her success, her business decisions, that made him a worldwide sensation. The crisis their relationship goes through and the bittersweet way it ends makes it a very human as well as entertaining story.
The skill of all the performers in this show is without a doubt, from the singing by Kimberly Blake as Jenny Lind, the Swedish Nightingale whose attempts at English on arriving in America are very funny as she repeats in a disgusted way Barnum’s attempts to get her pronunciation right and then rises in the air singing like an angel. The amazing acrobatics and singing from all the performers and the balance that Brian Conley displays as he tightropes across the stage, across to Jenny Lind, as his wife Chairy runs on to witness as he crosses a divide that he has never attempted before, knowing what all that means to her.
The set is very cleverly designed to enable the audience to appreciate all the different types and extremes of Barnum’s acts from the massive legs of Jumbo to the oversized chair that makes a normal sized man look like Tom Thumb. The action, movement and colours make you feel that the man who said that life is full of colours and who we are now watching the life of played out in music and dance and acrobatics, certainly was right. He certainly is still colouring the world and this production carries on with that legacy with integrity and just, well, fun.
There really is nothing as good as seeing real life people do stuff like this. It might’ve left the audience with the desire to backflip out of the theatre at the end and face life looking at things through new angles and humbugs or maybe just for that one night and that is no bad thing. Maybe the next day more people were walking across their office on tip toes or balancing on one leg at a blood pressure check up with an extra spring in their step – I hope so – I’m not telling you what I did but I thought the bannister was stronger than that and office chairs aren’t what they used to be, slower and spin less well than they used to it seems. We could all do with the right kind of a bit of circus in our lives and make them the greatest shows we ever take part in.
Barnum is on at New Victoria Theatre until Saturday 24 January 2015 tickets available on http://www.atgtickets.com