Barnum review – Brigstocke's shameless showman leads a charming carnival

There’s no big top at the Menier Chocolate Factory, but it’s been reconceived as a festive in-the-round theatre for this intimate revival of the musical about the 19th-century showman PT Barnum. It’s less grand circus, more travelling carnival, and there are moments when everything comes together for a charming, toe-tapping affair despite its wobbly tentpole – a thinly sketched biography of the so-called “Prince of Humbug”.

This 1980 Broadway show sets up Barnum as a sucker for the American dream, even as he declares “there’s a sucker born every minute”. Audiences are willing to pay good money for his extravagant hoaxes: from seductive fake mermaids to a 160-year-old woman he claims nursed America’s founding father George Washington. Anchoring him to earth is his steadfast, pragmatic wife Charity “Chairy” Barnum, portrayed as a long-suffering saint who puts up with her husband’s risky financial gambles on his next big attraction.

Long-suffering saint … Laura Pitt-Pulford as Chairy with Brigstocke as Barnum. Photograph: Tristram Kenton for the Guardian

Barnum, previously portrayed by the charismatic Michael Crawford at the Palladium, is played with strained aplomb by Marcus Brigstocke, who despite wavering vocals and an obvious unease with onstage stunts, conveys the celebrated impresario’s invincible sense of derring-do. It’s Laura Pitt-Pulford as tough, sweet Chairy who carries the quiet heart of a frenzied show, and you miss her when she’s gone.

Their romance is swaddled by an ensemble of enormous energy who leap, tumble and whirl about the stage, showing off an impressive range of street magic tricks and edgier stunts. Director Gordon Greenberg’s decision to scale down for a more immersive environment means the theatre is packed with up-close performances, some forced (but gentle) audience participation, and a couple of cute perspective tricks. The musical parades at a breathless speed through Barnum’s life, pointedly skirting his faults and infidelity, and creating a “humbug” all of its own by reimagining the relationship between Chairy and Barnum, embellished by Mark Bramble to make the plot stick.

Bramble’s book revels in the spectacle of showcasing Barnum’s exotic acquisitions, whether it’s Swedish soprano Jenny Lind or the 25-inch tall General Tom Thumb, and touches just briefly on Barnum’s political aspirations and a fascinating laundry list of the causes he stood for, including the abolition of slavery. But the musical often feels like a thinly disguised vehicle for watchable circus acts and Cy Coleman’s pleasant score of ragtime riffs and belty ballads, sealed with an old-timey marching band. Coleman’s instantly recognisable Sweet Charity musical numbers have, unfortunately, far outlasted these.

Seductive illusion … the Barnum ensemble.

Seductive illusion …
the Barnum ensemble. Photograph: Tristram Kenton for the Guardian

Barnum’s advice to the young man we know will become his partner, Bailey, is to “hook your attractions to the mood of the country”, and there’s a well-milked nostalgia here for a more oblivious era, where lies and truth were more distinguishable, and the media circus and the political circus were less insidious purveyors of fake news. Barnum’s hoaxes and political campaign feel innocent by comparison with their bald profiteering and straightforward sensationalism. “The circus needs you” – so the finale goes – championing its seductive powers of illusion over the masses. But I’m not quite convinced we need this circus.

  • At the Menier Chocolate Factory, London, until 3 March. Book here. Box office: 020-7378 1713.

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