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Review: Barnum at Newcastle Theatre Royal

Brian Conley plays the shameless showman in an exuberant production of hit musical Barnum

****
Johan Persson
BARNUM, , Music - CY COLEMAN, Lyrics - MICHAEL STEWART , Book Mark Bramble, Director Timothy Shreader, Co- director Liam Steel, Co choreographer Andrew Wright, Chichester Festival Theatre, 2013, Credit Johan Persson/

There is, American showman Phineas T Barnum was fond of saying, “a sucker born ev’ry minute”.

So given that in this show we find ourselves cast in the role of his audience, does that apply to us?

Not at all. What 21st Century producers Michael Harrison and Cameron Mackintosh share with their 19th Century equivalent is an understanding of how to show people a good time.

Barnum may have traded in “humbug” – another of his words – but there is nothing in this musical based on his life to suggest anyone ever felt cheated.

People paid good money to see Joice Heth, the “oldest woman in the world”, and the little “general”, Tom Thumb.

They flocked to see the dubious attractions in his New York museum, only making way for new visitors when a sign was put up directing them to the ‘egress’ (a fancy word for exit).

Johan Persson
BARNUM, , Music - CY COLEMAN, Lyrics - MICHAEL STEWART , Book Mark Bramble, Director Timothy Shreader, Co- director Liam Steel, Co choreographer Andrew Wright, Chichester Festival Theatre, 2013, Credit Johan Persson/

He knew how to put on a show and so do our modern showmen. Barnum the musical is colourful, exuberant and spills out of the confines of its big top-style stage.

Even as we take our seats there are acrobats, jugglers and strongmen gallivanting in the aisles. The theatre has become a circus, a place where anything can happen.

But a theatre is not a circus. In a theatre you need a story, something to touch the emotions.

Barnum is a show that wears its heart on its sleeve. Like Barnum himself, it is multi-coloured – the Black and White dance routine serves only to highlight this – and optimism lurks around every corner.

Brian Conley is the perfect Barnum – likeable, expansive, a man who can almost make you believe he wants to entertain you more than he wants to profit from the experience. To wife Chairy, played by Linzi Hateley, he is incorrigible.

Only with Jenny Lind, the “Swedish nightingale”, coolly realised here by Kimberly Blake, did he bite off more than he could chew. She, it seems, had a genuine talent and you sense he didn’t quite know how to handle it.

Barnum is an old fashioned show in many ways, realising it can never be edgy or cool. I was never really troubled by a lump in the throat, even when Barnum is briefly down on his luck, and I can’t pretend the songs stick in my head.

But the whole thing is delivered with such big-hearted joie de vivre that it’s unlikely you’ll feel short-changed. Brian Conley as (unlikely) tightrope walker is the cherry on the cake – or was that a Barnum-style trick of the eye?

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