It shouldn’t really have been so much of a shock as ‘Barnum’ the musical, being staged at The Edinburgh Playhouse this week, joyously reflects the other side to his character, that of an inveterate showman. It chronicles his career rising, falling and rising again, until it reaches his greatest triumph, his partnership in Barnum & Bailey’s Three Ring Circus, dubbed – by Barnum – “The Greatest Show On Earth!”
The whole show is themed around the Circus Big Top, and right from the moment you enter the auditorium you can easily imagine that you are in a huge tent. As happens at the circus, members of the cast are circulating amongst the audience performing tricks and stunts. Then the show proper starts with the appearance ‘in the ring’ of Barnum, played brilliantly by Brian Conley. From the start he shows off his comic talent, but throughout the show he repeatedly surprises with myriad other talents, but I shan’t ruin the surprises by saying what!
That’s not to say that the other leading players are not talented; far from it! Barnum’s long suffering wife ‘Chairy’ and, as we see as the story unfolds, the stabilising influence in his career, is beautifully portrayed by Linzi Hateley – she particularly shines in her solo musical performances. As does Kimberley Blake playing one of Barnum’s most famous ‘acts’, the Swedish Nightingale, Jenny Lind. And Mikey Jay-Heath as ‘General’ Tom Thumb… In fact the whole cast are clearly very talented. In other musicals there is always the supporting cast of singers and dancers, but for this production, many of them are circus performers too with acrobatics galore throughout.
Although Barnum does not have a huge cast, this is a ‘big’ production. I can’t imagine it working in a theatre any smaller than the Playhouse. The staging makes full use of the space as well as some very clever illusions to transport you back to the 19th century. and the spectacle of Phineas Taylor Barnum’s epic showmanship. This is a wonderful show, living up to his moniker of ‘The Greatest Showman On Earth’.