★★★ | Barnum
Cameron Mackintosh’s new production of Barnum charts the rise and rise of one of America’s most famous showmen, Phineas T. Barum, whose showmanship and panache for the spectacular led him to become one of America’s richest men. Starting off with a small sideshow, brick by brick he builds his entertainment empire into the greatest show on earth, whilst all the time being supported by his patient and understanding wife. The balance between his dreams and her grounded reality are evident, but his love is tested when he meets beautiful opera singer, Jenny Lind.
Barnum, as a show itself, is perhaps not best remembered for its storyline, which is thinner than the usual musical; nor for its particularly memorable songs. The show itself is a fairly episodic affair, with the set pieces being broken up by scenes, mainly between Barnum and his wife, which carry the narrative. However, what this production will be remembered for is an absolute abundance of colourful, joyful energy during the big numbers, assaulting the senses with rousing singing and spectacularly choreographed routines. Filling the stage with a plethora of circus skills, including tumbling, ribbon work, silks, tightrope waking and balancing, there is no denying the fact that this is a performance which has been polished to within an inch of its life.
Playing very much to his strengths, Brian Conley won me over in his performance as Barnum, as his wry smile and casual banter with the audience kept him just on the right side of being the confident, consummate showman; both as the character and in himself.
Whilst this may have been Conley’s show, he was supported by a large and talented cast, including Linzi Hateley, Kimberly Blake and Landi Oshinowo, a packed out ensemble of very talented dancers and circus performers and a live orchestra. The scale of the production is impressive and it is clear to see the budget, quality and experience behind the production itself, with not only the visuals being bold, brash and ballsy, but in also the technical presentation of the show being wholly impressive, nowhere more evident than the superb lighting designed by Paule Constable.
With its colour, vibrancy, sense of fun and its full throttle energy, Barnum may well be very much style over substance; but the style it has is undeniably top notch.
Barnum is currently playing at the Sheffield Lyceum Theatre (www.sheffieldtheatres.co.uk) until Saturday 11th April 2015, before continuing on its national tour (www.barnummusical.com) calling at Leeds, Milton Keynes, Liverpool, Plymouth, Southampton, Canterbury, Birmingham, Salford and Cardiff.