Review by Sandra Cooper

Brian Conley plays the colourful Barnum as Cameron Mackintosh’s magical show found its way to the Theatre Royal Nottingham, to surprise, entertain and deliver a rather large slice of good old fashioned fun.

Conley and Phineas T Barnum have much in common. Like Barnum before him, Conley is a great showman and knows instinctively how to work an audience. So if ever a performer was born to play the part of the circus legend, it is Conley who grabs the audience from his very first entrance to his final exit.

For those unfamiliar with the story, Barnum originated from humble sideshow beginnings where he persuaded customers to part with their dimes to see a ‘mermaid’, to a partnership with James A Bailey and the creation of the phenomenal Barnum and Bailey travelling circus, with a foray into politics in between. This show allows us to follow this legendary showman’s life as he lit up the world with colour, warmth and the excitement of his imagination.

From the outset a very strong supporting ensemble of acrobatic cast members turned the Theatre into an explosion of dance and circus before the show had even started. They juggled, performed on trapeze, ropes and ribbons, played instruments, were acrobats and tumblers and I am fairly certain I saw someone on stilts in the Circle, but with so much going on, I couldn’t be sure.

It was sheer entertainment from the off. We met some of the characters from Barnum’s shows such as Joice Heth played by the very talented Landi Oshinowo, who was the oldest woman alive at 160, or possibly a hundred years old as George Washington’s nurse, depending upon Barnum’s particular line of humbug that day.

And there was General Tom Thumb who was neither a general nor called Tom Thumb, but in an age of side shows, that hardly mattered. Played by the diminutive Mikey Jay-Heath, he was engulfed by a big chair to add to the illusion, with soldiers and Conley appearing on stage on stilts to emphasise his small size.

We also had the largest elephant in the world which was so big that only his feet and trunk would fit onto the stage, and a circus wagon which disgorged different acts. In all, it was spectacular stagecraft.

Although Barnum never actually said “there’s a sucker born every minute”, it is a refrain that runs through the show in tandem with “humbug” to describe the hype and exaggerations that he employs to seduce the punters. Whilst Barnum’s enthusiasm for the sublime never wavers, it is set against the grounding advice of his wife, Chairy, played by West End and Broadway star, Linzi Hateley. She had a wonderful confident manner and her voice was simply delightful.

Amidst all of the chaos, it was this relationship between Conley and Hateley that seemed the most real. We were sucked into their relationship as the chemistry on stage was there to be seen. We were routing for them that much that when Barnum succumbed to the delightful charms of the Swedish Nightingale Jenny Lind, played by Kimberly Blake, there were portions of the audience who wanted to boo.

Chairy’s presence was such that her death scene, as she walked into a darkness lit by glowing juggling balls, was just a beautiful piece of theatre.

Throughout, Cy Coleman’s music and Michael Stewart’s lyrics brilliantly conjured spit and sawdust and old fashioned razzmatazz. Come Follow The Band was a standout ensemble piece, whilst the haunting melody of The Colours Of My Life was particularly striking. There was also a piece of skilled choreography from Andrew Wright which saw the cast throwing around 24 bricks throughout the number, One Brick At A Time, finishing with them all in order to spell out Barnum Museum at the end.

Whilst the cast numbered 23 together with an 11 piece orchestra, it was Conley who stole the show. He wholeheartedly threw himself into the role which demanded more than simply being able to sing and dance. He had to manage some effective magic; turning a flaming twist of paper into a rose, walking on stilts and that always dangerous tight rope walk which he managed on the third attempt. He carried the audience in the palm of his hand and with such warmth and charisma, it was impossible not to love him.

This show was great fun and cracking entertainment. So if the opportunity arises, roll up, roll up to see the greatest show on earth, as Mr Barnum would have modestly put it. You most certainly will not be disappointed.