Week 1: ‘I feel like a terrible mistake is about to be exposed’
I’m proud of the stories, jokes and rants I’ve written and I love performing them. I’ve made lots of telly and radio, been in a few films and done thousands of standup shows. But playing PT Barnum, the “greatest showman on Earth”, is bigger and braver than all that. This is much closer to what I hoped I might do when I was in my 20s. I really don’t want to screw this up.
The cast sing with ease and style. Some of them dance so well it seems they can fly. Others are circus-trained and can actually fly (or at least be flung skywards and land like they’re Marvel characters). I feel old and tired. I lack the skills and experience of these beautiful people. I feel like a terrible mistake is about to be exposed. Everyone is so kind, which makes it much, much worse.
I am concentrating hard and listening. The director talks fast, thinks faster and has directed this before. He knows what he’s after. I am trying.
Laura Pitt-Pulford is playing Charity Barnum, my wife. She’s brilliant and generous. The beginnings of what will be our scenes together are fun and feel like something I can do well if I really concentrate.
Laura sings. Beautifully.
I sing. Next to Laura …
Week 2: ‘I wobble like a penguin. I am soaked in sweat’
I have been practising on a low tightrope for a couple of weeks. I’m thrilled with my progress. I have walked nearly four metres and can take a jacket off while balancing on one foot! This evening I met my tightrope coach, Alana. We go to practice in the open hull of a boat where a six-metre wire is rigged.
As it transpires, nothing I have learned is of use. Other than the fact that if you fall on to the wire (a thin piece of metal) it hurts.
I wobble like a penguin. I am soaked in sweat and exhausted. I’ve fallen off so many times, and my left foot is in a lot of pain. Some time ago I snapped my Achilles tendon (dancing in an Edinburgh show) and ruptured my cruciate ligament (in The Jump on TV). It shows.
Things I have learned about tightrope walking so far:
If you go too slowly – you fall.
If you stop moving forwards – you fall.
If you go too fast – you fall.
If you don’t look at where you’re going – you fall.
If you don’t concentrate on where you are now – you fall.
It’s more frightening thinking about doing it than actually doing it.
Tightrope walking is an uncomfortably accurate metaphor for how my life has been so far. Keep moving forwards.
Week 3: ‘My daughter and I rehearse the songs on the way to school’
We have worked through all of act one. I love it. I’m still pretty scared, but this could be really, really good. It isn’t going to be like any version of Barnum that’s been done before.
I am learning magic. I am getting some of the choreography right some of the time. My singing is improving – I go for singing lessons before rehearsals. Laura and I are finding a Mr and Mrs Barnum who feel real and connected and who love each other. It feels like we are making sense of a fast-moving story.
My kids have been helping me learn the script and the songs. My daughter and I see how fast we can sing The Museum Song on the walk to school. I am in heaven.
My left foot is now so swollen when I get up in the morning, my toes don’t touch the floor. It looks like an inflated Marigold glove, and I can’t get my shoe on.
I am practising on a 10-metre wire now. That’s a long way on a strip of metal. Too long actually, as it turns out. A trip to the physio, and Alana and I are strategising. I’m worried. I am trying as best I can. This is not progressing as I’d hoped.
I’ve finally seen what the circus guys have been working on in the big rehearsal space … wow! It’s so bloody dangerous. Not like, ‘Ooh, that’s impressive’ – I mean properly, heart-in-mouth, gasp-making, holy-shit dangerous.
This is the show I’m in. Hah! Amazing.
Week 4: ‘The lyrics are a stream of nonsense. I’ll never learn them’
Act two is mostly in place, and we’ve begun doing full run-throughs. Someone asked me yesterday how it’s going. I said it’s like standing at the bottom of a mountain practising for when I attempt to catch an avalanche (while wearing a top hat).
I can’t let the difficulty I’m having on the tightrope become an obsession. It’s one (very important) bit in a brilliant story. My foot is a bit better. I have better shoes and I’ve been making progress. I train every day. I am still not fit enough.
We’re running the full show every day. I’m so tired. I have the story in my head. I like PT Barnum very much. He was a genuine good ’un. He made the world brighter and more colourful. I want to get this right.
Everywhere I turn, I am getting help. Alex the musical director and his assistant Matt have the patience of saints. I can sing it all beautifully standing next to the piano. It’s harder in the scenes, but we’re getting there. Laura never falters when I miss a note.
Ouch. I fell. Badly. The wire was going between my legs so I swung my knee across and have taken most of the skin off my shin. I have deep cuts, and the bruising is bad. It hurts and it’s a mess.
I got back up and did it again. I am proud of myself. Alana made me do it. She’s ace. I am terrified.
The lyrics to The Prince of Humbug are a stream of nonsense words. I’ll never learn them. Blither blather, gabble guff, hokum, hooey, chatter, bunk, wile and guile and trumpery. (We’ve cut trumpery – too loaded with … Trumpery now.)
Week 5: ‘I have hurt myself’
We’re at the Menier Chocolate Factory. I’ve seen so many shows here – I’ve never seen it look as good as this.
Tech rehearsals involve singing lessons 9-10am (after getting my daughter to school). Wire training 10.30-noon. Full costume in tech 1-11pm. I am tired.
Today I went on the wire for the first time in front of the cast. This mattered to me a great deal. I stood tall. Pressed down into the tightrope. Elbows up. Strong core. Soft knees.
I have hurt myself. The backs of my legs are bruised, and I whacked my foot on the floor. I don’t want to let anyone down. This matters to me so much.
First night: ‘Here we go’
This is it! The biggest challenge of my career. I woke up feeling mentally good but with huge unhelpful surges of adrenaline flushing through my body.
Everyone in the cast is buzzing. We’re ready for an audience. Everything else is in place. The costumes are fantastic. I want to see what people think of our story.
The dress rehearsal was a glorious mess. Spirits are high. I feel good. My legs hurt …
Here we go.
“Barnum’s the name. PT Barnum. And tonight on this stage you’re going to see every sight, wonder and miracle that name stands for … ”
They loved it!
I fell. Twice. They loved it. I am so happy.