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Philanthropist, politician and, most famously, a tireless showman, the American Phineas Taylor Barnum (1810-1891) entertained millions at the “Greatest Show on Earth” and in his American Museum which drew the crowds with shamelessly exaggerated claims about the fake human curiosities on display inside – including Joice Heth, the woman he advertised as being the 160 year old former nurse of George Washington even though, in reality, she was only half that age.

So it needs a supremely confident performer to take on the title role in this 1980 musical by Cy Coleman (music) and Michael Stewart (lyrics). To be fair, there’s little depth to writer Mark Bramble’s dash through some of the key events in Barnum’s life, but, although comedian Marcus Brigstocke is certainly game - and has an attractively genial manner - he lacks not only the charismatic drive but also the singing voice to hold the show together. And a tightrope crossing on a rather low high wire proves more than a step too far.

Yet there’s much to enjoy in Gordon Greenberg’s packed production. Paul Farnsworth’s design decks out the auditorium like a circus tent in which a highly skilled ensemble tumble, balance, climb up poles, perform magic  tricks and even eat fire within inches of the audience.. Harry Francis’s General Tom Thumb pirouettes like a whirlwind and Celinde Schoenmaker trills beautifully as “Swedish Nightingale” Jenny Lind who almost lures Barnum away from Laura Pitt-Pulford’s Chairy, his long-suffering, down-to-earth wife.

There’s even a glimpse of Jumbo the elephant – well, a couple of legs and a trunk of him anyway. But ultimately it’s the thrill of the circus rather than the self-styled “Prince of Humbug” which proves to be the main attraction of this particular production

Menier Chocolate Factory, 53 Southwark Street, SE1 1RU

Tube: London Bridge

Until 3rd March 2018

£25.00- £47.50 plus premier seats & £57.50 meal deals



Theatre Review: Barnum
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