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Barnum: Menier Chocolate Factory

January 31, 2018

(seen at the afternoon performance on 28th Janaury 2018)

Some shows you are just a little sentimental about.  For me, this is one of them. Didn’t get in at the Palladium, was disappointed “live” at the Victoria Palace when Mr Crawford revivied it… but that was all a long time ago… The showing on BBC1 one Christmas of the same show, recorded for TV, suddenly sparked something – and that’s never left. Paul Nicholas at the Dominion, Brian Conley at the New Wimbledon, and now one Marcus Brigstocke becomes the latest to face the female of the species, alone and unaided.

On the face of it, a huge visual musical is a rum undertaking for the tiny Menier. This attempt, as it turns out, is rather good. Fully “in the round,” with a low central podium and strings of lights, they make the most of the space, even before the show begins. Trust the monkey, arrive early, first admire the exibits, and then stand near the bar at the far end of the foyer, to evesdrop at the door… and on leaving, spare a glance at the glass case as you go by…

 

In the centre ring itself, Brigstocke recieved a coolish welcome back in December. The monkey can only conclude that it was “early days.” Being honest, his singing voice really is “adequate” at its very best. His musical theatre acting is a grade or so above that, and he doesn’t come out blustering and blistering as every other Barnum before him right from the start. He gets along the wire at the second attempt, with sardonic humour after the first (but who else in the theatre could do it at all?). And yet, and yet. As the show goes on, he proves a rather more tender man, his relationship with Charity (Laura Pitt-Pulford) deeper and more intimately portrayed than many before him. By the end, he had won me over (and not just with the free humbug handed out to get him elected either).

 

For her part, Pitt-Pulford brings her usual strong-under-sweet skills, her “Colours of My Life” truly those of the earth, with a light glisten of shining dew.

The extra glory of this production lies in the choice to use the original script. We get to hear cut song “So Little Time” from Barnum himself, and a few previously “deleted” scenes. It all rather proves, in the second act particularly, that the changes made for the last national tour were not really for the better, I feel.

If that isn’t enough from director Gordon Greenberg, the outstanding Rebecca Howell choreographs a beautifully chosen ensemble to perfection. There’s also a wonderful Philip Gladwell lighting moment bringing out the emotion during the final “Colours of My Life” reprise.

Ringmaster Dominic Owen and his crazy sidekick fool around until the lightbulb turns red (yes, it was spotted), Kelsey Jamieson enjoys being thrown around by husband Preston (it’s OK, they’re married) and Tupele Dorgu proves that she can sing the blues with the best – and is the youngest looking old woman ever.

 

Celinde Schoenmaker is a smiley Jenny Lind, Harry Francis a balletic Tom Thumb of towering dance ability; and there is lovely work from the rest in some notable dance numbers and tableux – the final farewell being quite something as the ghosts gather on balconies.

In short, those proclaiming the end of the golden years of Menier Christmas shows need to take another look. It probably took a few weeks to get the show into true shape, but this is now a circus worth running away to see.

 

4 stars.

 

Photo credit: Nobby Clark, used by kind permission.

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