When it comes to musical theatre, the arm-length list of skills required to play the role of Phineas T Barnum puts it at the (big) top end of the demanding spectrum.
For starters, you’re being asked to play ‘America’s Greatest Showman’. Then there’s the boxes for high-wire walking, fire eating, walking on stilts and juggling which all need to be ticked... meanwhile let’s not forget the little matter of the show’s top drawer acting and singing requirements.
Luckily, and perhaps surprisingly for theatre impresario Sir Cameron Mackintosh and Newcastle-born producer Michael Harrison, the leading man they had in mind for their lavish new touring production of Barnum had a bit of a head start.
“Before I started this I could fire eat, would you believe,” laughs entertainment all-rounder Brian Conley who plays the legendary showman and entrepreneur.
“And I could juggle a bit too,” he adds, opting not to list his on-stage acting and singing abilities, perhaps rightly assuming I knew he was up with the best of them on those particular scores.
“It’s certainly the most demanding role you’d ever play in musical theatre,” he goes on. “There’s no part like it.”
And Brian would know, having taken major roles in Me and My Girl, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Jolson, Hairspray, The Music Man and Sir Cameron’s hit touring production of Oliver! which spent two months at Newcastle Theatre Royal in the autumn of 2012. An unrecognisable Brian played Fagin to much acclaim.
But back to the musical currently soaking up his enthusiasm.
“For someone who had only ever walked the dog, I think I’m the fittest I’ve ever been! It’s a huge undertaking and takes an incredible amount of concentration.
“The first act is one hour, 10 (minutes) and I’m on stage for one hour, nine. The second half is 50 minutes, and I’m on for 50 minutes. There’s no time to regroup. But it makes the show go quickly and that fear is always what drives you.”
Despite the demanding nature of the role, 53-year-old Brian, who started his three-times-a-week circus training around Christmas 2013, didn’t take much persuading to lead the 26-strong cast on an extravagant UK tour, which will arrive at Newcastle Theatre Royal on February 17 for an 11-night stay.
Brian says: “Michael Crawford playing the role was the first thing I’d ever seen in the West End, and I fell in love with it. Then when I saw the new production in Chichester (a slightly tweaked version of the original with the permission of writer Mark Bramble) I thought it was wonderful.
“Also, the fact that it was Sir Cameron wanting to bring it back to the stage made me want to do it even more. I knew there wouldn’t be any scrimping going on. Whatever he does, he always does it to get it right. I had first hand experience of that in Oliver!”
The current touring production of Barnum is a revival of the smash hit Broadway and West End hit from the early 1980s which opened in New York with Jim Dale and Glenn Close playing Mr and Mrs Barnum. The aforementioned Mr Crawford won an Olivier Award for his performance in the leading role when the London incarnation opened in 1981.
The musical delves into the irrepressible imagination and dreams of P T Barnum (1810-1891), American’s second millionaire who was the country’s richest man when he died.
Cy Coleman’s exuberant score includes the hits Come Follow The Band, The Colours Of My Life and There Is A Sucker Born Ev’ry Minute, offering the soundtrack to the legendary showman’s life as he lit up the world with the colour, warmth and excitement and finally teamed up with J A Bailey to create Barnum and Bailey’s Circus – aka the ‘Greatest Show on Earth’.
“But it’s not just about the circus,” says Brian.
“I think some people come along thinking it’s going to be a circus show, but it’s not. There’s a love story between him and his wife, Chairy and, well it’s the story of the first Richard Branson really.
“He was an extraordinary man. So many of the things you hear about him make you think ‘nah, that can’t be true’. And then you find out it all is. He was a genius of his day. The amount of money he made in those times. It’s unbelievable.
“I knew very little before I started this, but now you could say I have a GCSE in Barnum.”
And he’s more than happy to show off a few nuggets of Barnum knowledge.
“He really was a gambler and did so many things. For example, the reason theatres are so ornate is down to Barnum because he wanted to bring in the middle classes. He wanted to class them up,” he says.
“He was a very clever shrewd man. The Barnum and Bailey Circus which was created when he was 64, was a three ring circus which meant people had to come at least twice because they couldn’t see it all in one visit.”
Although there’s clearly more to the show than high wires and acrobatics, there is also a significant amount of big top-worthy action taking place on the stage.
The high wire scene being a particularly tense case in point.
“It’s one of the obstacles the show poses and I did find myself thinking initially when I was on the tightrope, ‘What am I doing here?’,” he laughs.
“I do eventually cross the wire - not always on the first attempt - but the more I fall off, the more dramatic it is. The whole audience appreciate that I’m not a professional tight rope walker. So their hearts are in their mouths - as is mine!”
But even when he’s seven feet up, making a 10ft journey across the stage on a wire, I’m pretty sure Brian wouldn’t be anywhere else.
“I love having the responsibility of making sure everyone has a good night - even when you’ve got a cold,” he sniffs. “That’s what makes you an entertainer - it’s a vocation. I went on holiday to Tenerife recently with my two girls and my wife and there was a little band and I was straight up singing a couple of songs.
“I have to do it. It’s like entertaining Tourettes. I see a group a people and I feel like I have to entertain them.”
And although he has enjoyed much success on the small screen - he was once one of the highest paid male entertainers on the box with his own show in the nineties and is indeed working on a new entertainment show for the BBC as we speak - Brian doesn’t hesitate when asked where he feels most at home.
“I’ve always been a stage performer. I’ve done so many musicals now. I’m very much of that world and feel in command when I’m on the stage,” he says.
“When you’re out there, you are out there on your own. There’s a real sense of achievement because you’re living off your wits - this show would be the biggest example of that. Anything can and does happen, and you have to be ready for that.
“But that’s what makes it exciting.”
* Barnum plays Newcastle Theatre Royal from February 17 to 28. Call 08448 11 21 21 or visit www.theatreroyal.co.uk to book.