Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Review: Barnum at Nottingham Theatre Royal. On tour.

In early September 2014 I reviewed, for The Public Reviews, the very first showing of the now touring production of Barnum at Leicester's Curve theatre. It was a very exciting night for this reviewer. Firstly I loved the re-working of the show and its new dynamics plus a deeper and more fluid emotionally engaging storyline. So on a rare chance to review the same show twice on its twenty-four theatre venue tour (finishing at the Birmingham Hippodrome 7 July - 1st August) I'm delighted to witness Barnum once again at NottinghamTheatre Royal (Tuesday 3rd February - 14th February).


In between time I have had the chance to interview the lead man himself, Brian Conley, for Sardines magazine. The interview was a great insight into the process of being chosen by Sir Cameron Mackintosh and how Brian agreed to play the role after seeing the show in a slightly different format at Chichester. The interview can be read in issue twenty-four of Sardines magazine. It is four pages of fascinating insights and some glorious photos of Barnum and of Brian's amazing career so far. I digress.

Two pages from feature/interview for Sardines magazine.
As a second review of the same show I would expect a little repetition but what I found tonight was that the show seemed extremely comfortable with itself and tighter than at Curve where the cast had so little time to get used to the building and the stage before press night was suddenly thrust upon them.

So without further ado: Barnum at Nottingham's Theatre Royal is an utter triumph! The 'old time' set fits in perfectly with the ornate Victorian architecture and green and gold finery and the magic of the show sparkled from beginning to the glorious finale and epilogue. The energy of the piece continues to be phenomenal. By the end you truly believe that PT Barnum (as played by Conley) is the Greatest Showman on Earth. There is almost a tangible sadness in the audience that the real life exuberant character isn't around any more.

Brian Conley as PT Barnum is certainly up there with the greatest show folk. There is a lovely warm chemistry from Conley with the audience and he handles all the great physical demands and vocal demands of the show with a hard earned cheeky ease and humour. The tension in the audience is palpable as he attempts to walk the high wire! In our interview for Sardines magazine Conley told me about how he feels during the wire walk. He said that he has learnt to concentrate solely on 'staying on the wire' and not just on getting to the other side. He said, " That's the real mind set - staying on the wire - plus the wire itself is a work of art. It has to be at exactly the right tension so that it doesn't snap. I like it as tight as possible. I don't like it moving. It took ages to get that right. And our set is solid. It has to be as we have people doing acrobatics on it and everything."

Like a previous Barnum (Michael Crawford) Conley has that wonderful ability to engage you wholesale in the emotional roller-coaster of his character with each utterly joyful and sometimes tearful note. Over the last five months touring with Barnum Conley has really grown into his character displaying further subtleties in his interpretation.

His recent diversion into pantomime with Gok Wan has certainly done his performance no harm. Indeed, his performance is continually electric and he is superbly supported by the whole talented ensemble and especially by his stage wife Chairy Barnum played by the beautiful and talented Linzi Hateley, stalwart of many a West End show. Hateley brings out all the grounded love for her husband PT Barnum and her depiction of her attractively sung songs feel genuinely heartfelt. You may imagine that a long running show on a national tour may diminish in quality. Imagine all you like this but this one has grown in stature beyond even the gigantic size of Jumbo the elephant! Hateley and Conley's on stage partnership is still as fresh as ever.

Actress and singer Kimberly Blake throws a romantic Swedish spanner into PT Barnum's world with her seductive talents as 'Swedish Nightingale' Jenny Lind singing Love Makes Such Fools of Us All. The brilliant staging as she rises to the roof of the stage on a swing has her literally ending her song on powerful 'high' note. Interestingly the slow acrobatics above the action- dream like with coloured umbrellas was excluded in tonight's show


Landi Oshinowo makes 160 year old Joice Heth one of funniest parts of the show with her utterly mad rendition of 'Thank God I'm Old' and Landi's later talents as Blues Singer warmly imbue the musical tone perfectly in the more poignant parts of Barnum.

General Tom Thumb – only twenty-five inches tall – played by Mikey Jay -Heath flings himself into the optimistic song 'Bigger Isn't Better' with great gusto and his scene with Jumbo the huge elephant has the audience in stitches.


This continues to be a very slick production with each of the all singing, all dancing, circus skilled cast putting in 200%. The live music (Musical Director Ian Townsend) is spot on acoustically and instrumentally and each musical number still gets huge applause from the very appreciative audience here in Nottingham.

Bang from the outset we are bedazzled by the cast playing amongst the audience and bamboozled with Conley's baloney and all sorts of circus trickery and hokum pokum. As previously hinted at the wonderful stage set is lit like a versatile Victorian gas lit theatre with all the colours of the spectrum thrown in for free. Well maybe not for free. A few worthwhile dollars may need to spent on a ticket or two but like Barnum's American Museum I can envisage people heading for the egress and queuing round the block to see it again and again. There are a few tickets left at the Theatre Royal but only a few. Grab em while you can.

This exuberant production of Barnum, adapted from the original 2013 Chichester Festival Theatre Cameron Mackintosh and Mark Bramble production is utterly breath-taking acrobatically, musically, visually and fizzing with theatrical energy.

The whole concept of Barnum is that the audience get swept along wholesale on a huge musical and spectacular wave of unashamed enthusiasm and emotion and this show that began its tour at Leicester Curve, far from disappoints. In fact it excels beyond measure. The multi talented ensemble are a force of energy that could light up the whole of a chilly and wintry February Nottingham one golden brick at a time! If you stood outside the frontage of the Theatre Royal during this show you could almost warm your hands on the brickwork. But maybe that's just humbug! Maybe not!

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