REVIEW: Conley is the showman’s showman as Barnum hits Milton Keynes

Barnum: Credit �' Johan Persson
Barnum: Credit �' Johan Persson

“Roll up, roll up to see the greatest show on earth,” proclaims Phineas Taylor Barnum who this week transports the Milton Keynes Theatre audience into the world of the big top, writes Alan Wooding.

Barnum is the circus musical which tells the story of America’s greatest showman who is brilliantly portrayed by all-round entertainer Brian Conley in a role made famous by Michael Crawford in the West End back in the early 1980s.

Barnum is a slick, colourful and thoroughly entertaining show, just as you would expect from the world’s best known musical producer, Sir Cameron Mackintosh.

Featuring acrobats, jugglers and trapeze artists, it brings out the very best in the multi-talented Conley who also walks a high wire tightrope at the end of the first act.

Superbly supported by Linzi Hateley as his wife Chairy, she uses her influence – and a two-headed coin! – to keep Barnum in check and to help him make his dreams of fame and fortune come true.

Based on a book written by Mark Bramble about America’s greatest showman and with lyrics and music by Michael Stewart and Cy Coleman respectively, several of the show’s talented 28-strong cast perform in the auditorium prior to curtain up with a series clever balances while jugglers and hula-hoopers invite the audience to join in and have a go.

While Conley’s Barnum is the central character, his philosophy on life is that ‘There’s a sucker born every minute’ and he’s pretty ruthless and tricky when it comes to ‘humbugging’.

Dealing with various managers and agents all offering acts to join what is really a ‘Barnum Museum’ freak show – there’s a mermaid, a white whale together with the world’s biggest elephant! – a fire on the building’s first anniversary looks to have ended those dreams.

However Barnum’s irrepressible imagination sees him ride out some pretty tough times while it’s the loyalty and belief of Chairy which carries him to even greater things.

Along the way Barnum embellishes the truth about the world’s oldest woman, the 160-year-old Joice Heth (brilliantly played by Landi Oshinowo) while the height of midget ‘General Tom Thumb’ is somewhat questionable, Mikey Jay-Heath having some rather ‘over-sized’ props to emphasise the illusion … it’s all humbugging!

Then there’s the lovely Jenny Lind (Kimberly Blake), the ‘Swedish nightingale’ who certainly captures Barnum’s heart as they go on a nationwide tour together.

However it’s the untimely death of Chairy which almost ends the Barnum dream until he is encouraged to join forces with James Anthony Bailey to revive an ailing circus and to turn it into a three-ring phenomenon.

All the high-octane thrills and spills of the circus ring are there as you journey through PT Barnum’s life and his loves, the colourful acrobats and tumblers together with those superb aerial artists in the talented cast are simply breathtaking.

The acts are introduced by a suitable attired Ringmaster played by John Stacey who also doubles as Barnum’s aide Wilton, while you’re transported into a ring side seat as the entertainer’s life is laid out before you.

With hits songs like ‘Come Follow The Band’, ‘The Colours Of My Life’ and ‘There’s A Sucker Born Ev’ry Minute’, Cy Coleman’s foot-tapping score is right up there with the best of ‘em. ‘One Brick At A Time’ sung by Chairy and the Ensemble is a real cracker as the bricks appear to be randomly placed on a revolving board which spins around to spell out ‘Barnum Museum’.

Meanwhile it’s Conley performance that brings the story of the Barnum & Bailey Circus to life as it travels across America and into Europe up until the 1880s.

On stage for almost the whole two hour 10 minutes of the show, the role of Barnum is tailor made for him following his West End successes as Al Jolson, Fagin in Oliver and Edna Turnblad in Hairspray.

Extremely versatile when it comes to acting, Conley also has a good deep singing voice and while he admits to having fallen a few times, he has certainly mastered tightrope walking even if he does take his time crossing between the two points some nine feet above the stage to join Jenny Lind.

A few years ago Conley had his own television show – remember “It’s a puppet?” – while he’s also spent time in the Australian jungle with Ant and Dec in ‘I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out of Here’ after which he ended up in hospital!

Special mention of Landi Oshinowo who, besides playing the world’s oldest women, is also an excellent Blues singer in the ‘Black and White’ sequence while Kimberley Blake’s portrayal of Jenny Lind marks her out as a fine soprano.

With 11 musicians under the guidance of musical director Ian Townsend, they never missed a beat while there’s plenty of slick choreography plus all the tricks and circus skills you would expect from a Cameron Mackintosh/Chichester Festival Theatre production … and that alone helps make Barnum a wonderful show for the whole family.

Barnum plays Milton Keynes Theatre until this Saturday (May 16) and to book your tickets you can call the box office on 0844 871 7652 or visit www.atgtickets.com/miltonkeynes – but remember that booking fees apply.