Barnum at the New Wimbledon
Phineas T Barnum was the original salesman back in the 1800s. He encapsulated all the trickery and diversion used in marketing today and endearingly referred to these days as “humbug”. He was also the creator of fantastical circus shows, the product of a soaring imagination. With his level-headed wife Charity by his side to anchor him, he climbed to the heights of fame and success.
Mackintosh and Harrison’s production (based on the book by Mark Bramble) welcomes you even before you take your seat. The ensemble, dressed in raffish 1800s show costume, squeezes through the auditorium’s rows, juggling, hula-hooping, performing balances on seats and flirting with the audience. Upon curtain up, the show launches into gleeful riot. You will behold, ladies and gentlemen, before your very eyes the world’s largest elephant, its tiniest man, its oldest woman, not to mention aerial gymnastics, dancers on stilts and a brass band.
Brian Conley is a show stealer, with a gleaming white smile to match his gleaming American accent. There is something of the young Dick Van Dyke channelled in his performance, with a devious edge. Proving himself the ultimate showman, he dances, jokes with the audience, sings (in fine, gravelly voice) and even walks the tightrope.
The ensemble demonstrates good, old fashioned theatrical aptitude, with high energy, polished dance moves and circus tricks a-plenty. During the song One Brick at a Time, they simultaneously catch and throw boxes to one another while keeping up the singing (and smiling), a feat of concentration. Linzi Hateley is warm and hugely likeable as wife Charity, and Kimberly Blake as soprano The Swedish Nightingale adds a sparkle of yesteryear glamour.
No story can allow its characters’ happiness to continue unchallenged. In the second half the struggles appear, in the form of romantic temptation, bereavement and the loss of youth. This brings a gentler tempo to the show and manages to avoid schmaltz and sentimentality. It is musical theatre at its most extravagant and energetic. The choreography is spot on, the gags abundant and the set dazzling. First night concluded with a well-deserved standing ovation.
Barnum is at New Wimbledon Theatre until 18th October 2014, for further information or to book visit here.