Barnum - September 2014

Roll up, roll up for the big top musical Barnum which spectacularly swung into the Bristol Hippodrome this week.

It also skipped, somersaulted and twirled in a magnificent display of song, dance, storytelling and razzle dazzle acrobatics.

Actor, comedian, tightrope walker and fire-eater Brian Conley stars as the legendary 19th century showman Phineas Taylor Barnum.

Entertainer Mr Conley, aged 53, is magnetic, magical and mesmerising in the title role and in parts it was difficult to decide whether what he was doing was scripted or he is the master of ad-libs.

Based on a book by Mark Bramble about the life of a wheeler dealer with a social conscience, PT Barnum and his touring attractions, it is a love story with a backdrop of fairground sideshows and improbable characters tossed and tumbled in a kaleidoscope of kitsch.

Alongside the big band, jugglers, trapeze artists and clowns are real-life personalities like the Scandinavian opera singer Jenny Lind (Kimberly Blake) and the vertically challenged General Tom Thumb (Mikey Jay-Heath).

Fatal Attraction bunny boiler Glenn Close played Charity (Chairy) Barnum and Carry On star Jim Dale was Barnum in the original Broadway 80s production which ran for nearly 1,000 performances before transferring to the West End, London.

The first touring version came to Bristol in the 1990s with actor/singer Paul Nicholson in the lead as Barnum.

With his catchphrase ‘Barnum’s the name, humbug’s the game’ the comical conman's attempts to make a fast buck include a 160-year-old woman who was nurse to George Washington, the biggest elephant in the world and a mummified mermaid who could still make a splash.

His longsuffering but loving wife Chairy played by Royal Shakespeare Company actor Linzi Hateley aims to keep Barnum grounded while he craves risk and excitement.

A fire thwarts his attempt to run a museum; he is unfaithful with the Swedish nightingale; and finally Barnum fails to swap show business for politics by winning (or winging) a ticket to Congress.

What makes this pretty production even more special is the clashing colour coordinates of the scenery, costumes and lighting - every bit as vibrant as the slick dance routine.

The ornate circus caravan and the black and white routine are delicious.

When Barnum lost his balance on the tightrope he blames it on being temporary blinded by the light bouncing of the bald head of the man in the second row!

Wherever you look on stage – if you dare let your eyes stray from the commanding Mr Conley – something wonderful is happening.

Up, down, sideways and running along the stalls or standing on the stage steps it is action all the way.

On the way out I did overhear someone saying that although it has a rip-rousing, toe-tapping score some of the quick fire dialogue is ricocheted around the auditorium.

This was because of the lightning speed of delivery but sadly bits then became incomprehensible.


However, this is a fantastic family musical which brightens a colourless world as it follows the irrepressible imagination and dreams of the greatest showman on earth.

Barnum has music by Cy Coleman, lyrics by Michael Stewart and is staged by Cameron Mackintosh and Mark Bramble.

Mr Coleman’s wonderfully exuberant score includes the hits Come Follow The Band, The Colours Of My Life and There Is A Sucker Born Ev’ry Minute.

The first night show deservedly received a standing ovation and some of the loudest cheers ever heard at the Hippodrome from its spellbound audience.

It plays the Bristol Hippodrome until Saturday, September 27.

I urge you not to miss this professional show which is suitable for all ages.

To book tickets at £12.50-£49.50 with concessions available click HERE.


Carol Deacon