Walking a casting tightrope: Barnum at the Menier Chocolate Factory

Friday 22nd December 2017

We’ve been wondering for a while why nobody has thought of mounting a small-scale production of ‘Barnum’, and now the Menier Chocolate Factory has finally got round to doing it as their Christmas show this year.  They already have the perfect venue with a building that feels (and smells!) instantly nostalgic, and the space is perfect for an intimate, in-the-round production.  But have they reached the heights of their previous musical theatre triumphs with this one?  Well, as PT Barnum himself once said – “I don’t care what the newspapers say about me as long as they spell my name right.”  So, here goes.

At nearly forty years old, ‘Barnum’ is beginning to look like a museum piece itself.  With music and lyrics by Cy Coleman and Michael Stewart, and book by Mark Bramble, the structure is unfussy – the key aim is to experience the highs and lows of PT Barnum’s career, sympathise with his long-suffering wife, and to understand how it was all worth it in the end, and what better medium for that than musical theatre.  The two big production numbers have kept their charm in many ways – ‘There’s a sucker born ev’ry minute’ is an irredeemably silly way to start off proceedings, and ‘Come Follow the Band’ is still a catchy and hummable tune – who can resist that comedic tuba riff?  The comic numbers featuring Barnum’s ‘attractions’ also offer plenty of opportunity for witty choreography and fun.  Ultimately though, this is not a musical stuffed full of classic numbers, and the Menier have set themselves a real challenge lifting it out of the ordinary.

Director Gordon Greenberg has done a fantastic job of recreating a circus atmosphere, and Scott Maidment has skilfully incorporated circus acts in a less-than-ideal space, making a little go a long way.  It is genuinely thrilling to wince as the acrobats lift up their partners so they are nearly touching the ceiling before tossing them to each other, not to mention the fire-juggling which was a little too close for comfort and some fearless tumbling.  The staging works very well, with a mini-revolve in the middle for the main action and side-show vignettes, and multiple entrances which ensure there is always something going on at the edges of the stage.

We are always delighted to see Laura Pitt-Pulford, one of the main attractions here playing Charity Barnum, but we would love to see her get the husband she deserves one of these days, having had to singlehandedly reform a bunch of boorish young men in ‘Seven Brides for Seven Brothers’ a couple of summers ago, not to mention having to put up with tyrannical film director Mack Sennett in Mack and Mabel in a fantastic production at the Southwark Playhouse.  She just radiates such optimism and love as Charity that nobody can resist, and she has the voice to match.

The cast is excellent and the ensemble acting, dancing and circus tricks are performed to perfection with an energy that is infectious.  It would be difficult to pick anyone out, except perhaps Harry Francis as Tom Thumb, whose balletic number ‘Bigger Isn’t Better’ is enchanting, and Celinde Schoenmaker as Jenny Lind, who is charmingly exotic.

Which brings us to the casting of Marcus Brigstocke in the lead.  We’ve spent plenty of time expounding our views on celebrity and stunt casting and they don’t need to be rehearsed here, but what we cannot understand is, if the Director was determined to have a non-singer in the role, why not at least choose someone with a persona that might fit the part?  They might just have got away with it.  The problem with the character of Barnum is that he is at heart selfish and self-absorbed, and whoever plays him needs to draw us in and show us the big-hearted kid underneath (or find one), otherwise we will lose interest in his story.  We have to be rooting for him.  Brigstocke has built a highly successful comedic career in his own right.  But his comic persona is clever, distant, and often wickedly satirical.  Whilst he must get ten out of ten for venturing out of his comfort zone (literally, in the tightrope walking scene), he just doesn’t have that innocent, childlike quality and boundless energy that would make us want to forgive Barnum for his dalliances.  There is a self-conscious echo in his acting that keeps pulling us back.  And let us remember this is a musical, and he also has to deliver some slow, reflective songs (such as ‘The Colours of My Life’).  It takes a special level of singing talent to really pull this off, and we suspect that if he had that, we would probably have found out about it by now.

This production is a great reminder of what the Menier does best, but we wish they had trusted the Menier brand to sell the show and given the opportunity of the lead to someone less well-known with the right skills and qualities for the job.

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