Theatre Review: Barnum - King's Theatre, Glasgow ✭✭✭✭

Review by Sharman Prince

The Greatest Show On Earth! Well - maybe not the greatest show but "Barnum" is certainly one of the more entertaining and non-stop productions currently in business. Ostensibly a show about the life of P.T. Barnum, the musical is more a celebration of the showmanship of one of the most charismatic men in history and the repercussions upon his personal life.

Based on the Chichester Festival Theatre production that premiered under a purpose-built big-top tent and overseen by Cameron Mackintosh, the design of "Barnum" has been adapted so that the auditorium is strewn with string lights creating a circus atmosphere upon entering the space. The proscenium is no barrier for a cast who utilise the auditorium and interact with the audience, further drawing the viewer into the carnival atmosphere. The Victorian-era sideshow design by Scott Pask and Lone Schacksen is perfectly appropriate in creating a performance space for acrobats, dancers and the like and is complimented by atmospheric lighting by Richard Pacholski and Simon Sherriff (based on the original design by Paul Constable) which further enhances a production that is darker and edgier than the brighter, original Broadway production that starred Jim Dale and Glenn Close (the British version of which starred Michael Crawford and is available on DVD). Paul Wills' costume design also echoes the Victorian era, sometimes even verging on Steampunk, and aid in making the performers stand out from the darker set.

Directed by Timothy Shearer and Liam Steel in Chichester, this tour's direction is by Jean-Pierre Van Der Spuy and is solid and confident and uses the performance area well; utilising the set, lighting and the cast in creating a variety of spaces and atmospheres within the basic unit design.

It is a bit of a shame that the book by Mark Bramble (here in a "revised version" by Bramble and producer Cameron Mackintosh) is quite episodic and lacking in great detail as most characters are too broadly drawn to serve as a strong piece of drama. But then that really isn't the point of a production which is clearly more about the spectacle and onstage happenings than the inner psychology of the protagonists. Most scenes are presented as an act within the circus and are thus presented in theatrical, entertaining ways. A similar device is used in the musical "Chicago" but to greater effect, but nonetheless the device serves "Barnum" well and establishes that sense of theatricality inherent within the world of "P.T. Barnum".

The score by Cy Coleman (music) and Michael Stewart (lyrics) is not a well-known one and is not the most memorable and suffers somewhat by being overshadowed by the happenings onstage. The score is most successful in the quieter moments between "Barnum" and his wife where their relationship is allowed to shine through the songs. Beyond that most of the musical numbers serve as fanfare and anthemic background music for the circus show. Indeed it is sometimes difficult to hear the lyrics which are drowned out at times by an orchestra which, strangely, sometimes sounds a little thin on the ground itself.

The show very much belongs to Brian Conley as the titular character and he is in his element when interacting and ad-libbing with the audience. He exudes a charisma and charm necessary for "Barnum" and is exceedingly effective as the showman; easily bringing the audience with him along the journey he makes. This may be one of the few times where "star-casting" may be a necessity for such a role.

As "Chairy", the wife of "Barnum", Linzi Hateley has the thankless task of being the figure who keeps the production rooted in some form of reality and she does so with ease and aplomb. She is the heart and humanity of the show and is the calm within the controlled storm that is the choreographed chaos spawned from the imagination of "P.T. Barnum".
Kimberly Blake lends a lovely voice to "Jenny Lind", the "Swedish Nightingale" who leads "Barnum" astray whilst the remainder of the cast are strong in voice as well as body (and they need to be!) as they perform the agile choreography of Andrew Wright.

As entertainment "Barnum" is a thrilling event more than a piece of drama but it is certainly an enjoyable and joyous enterprise and one that should be seen and experienced.

Barnum is at the King's Theatre until Saturday 4th April. For tickets and information visit