Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Chapter 48: Barnum the Musical, encore!

Come Follow the Band

"Staying home living day by day, may be safe but it can't be duller,
Seeing things only black and grey, when the world is alive with colour.
Doing just what your neighbours do, maybe wise but it ain't so clever.
Every man has a dream or two. Let 'em go and they're gone forever."
Barnum, "Out There"

I was toying with the idea of giving up the blog last week. Juggling family life while carving out this circus space feels like a precarious balancing act at times. So I took myself off to a friend's couch. A friend who has multiple children, trains at Circus Space and guides people for a living, albeit around London. Someone who I could count on to understand, and, crucially, to talk me out of it. I'm clever like that. And that's what she did, with words of wisdom worthy of circus impresario Phineas Taylor Barnum himself.

I love the idea of a Barnum and Bailey Circus and the whole Big Top scene.  What's the attraction? The glamour. The razzle-dazzle. The sexiness. The laughter. The jaw-dropping feats that make you gasp in awe "That's impossible!" or "I could never do that!" and then, in my case, comes the siren call of that still, small voice inside piping up "but I'd like to give it a go...". The Big Top for me represents a space to think big and go for it. 

Funnily enough though, I never went to the circus as a child. One of my older siblings had once been so scared by clowns that by the time I came along, number six, my mother had sworn never again. Maybe that forbidden fruit of clowning is why I am so partial to a spot of it myself. Anyway, one day, back in the 80s, BBC1 screened the musical "Barnum" starring Michael Crawford, showman and stunt-meister par excellence, and I was immediately captivated, from the very first catapault.

The musical tells of Barnum's life with his beloved wife Charity, a patchwork of honest browns, taupes and gentle tones who both contrasts and ultimately complements his own glitzy, vibrant brand of humbug. The show charts Barnum's career moving from the world of exhibiting curiosities in museums to going on tour, the acts he picks up, including the beautiful Swedish Nightingale, who he really picks up (and then drops again), to Barnum's mind-numbing stint in a clock factory at his wife's behest, his foray into politics and his eventual return home to all things circus, with his pal Mr Bailey.

We saw the show twice last year at the beginning and end of the run at Chichester Festival Theatre, which I presume was producer Cameron Macintosh's trial run for a West End transfer, and now this year on tour at the New Wimbledon Theatre. Each time the children have enjoyed the music, the colour and the spectacle, but essentially we have seen three very different shows.   

Trailer for Barnum at Chichester Festival Theatre:

The first time round Chichester Festival Theatre was being revamped and we saw the production in a temporary construction that from the outside looked like a big top tent. Perfect.  There was a slated, wooden walkway with lights leading up to it and a variety of stands outside selling old-fashioned humbugs (the mint kind) and other transports of delight.  It was summer and there was very much a festival atmosphere. In the performance itself there were fire-eaters, tumblers, acrobats on silks, jugglers, and my favourite, the aerialists spinning umbrellas over the waltzing lovers (see trailer). It was simply enchanting. It happened to be press-night as well, and it was evident that the poe-faced critics sitting in the row in-front were not going to be huge fans. The lead, Christopher Fitzgerald had obviously been giving it his all in the run-up and had lost his voice, and he didn't make it across the tightrope. However that disappointment just made his Barnum all the more fallible, and we rooted for him. His is the Barnum who makes mistakes and picks himself up, he is the grafter on the make, the cheeky chappy, the fighter with chutzpah. And that's why we went back at the end of the run. In the second show we saw, same location, the songs had been cut, along with some of the circus performance sequences and it was altogether more streamlined. Christopher Fitzgerald was on fire and triumphed on the tightrope. How we cheered. 

We needed cheering up ourselves the third time round. My husband was unable to join the kids and I at the last minute. Still, we knew the score - quite literally, actually, as the kids know every song backwards - and the moment we stepped over the threshold to the theatre, the show worked its charm. 

Cutting it fine as ever, as we ran down the stairs to the stalls we crossed paths with circus performers coming up.  They instantly engaged with the children, making jokes, throwing them balls, and a cute aside in my direction was an instant pick-me-up. We were laughing all the way to our seats. When we got there the fun and games continued. One juggler had my son throwing clubs, the girls got my daughter involved in a hoop trick that very nearly worked, together with ribbon twirling. "Honey, we need to get you into a costume" they told her, and my daughter's face just beamed. Priceless. 

The production in Wimbledon had a much smaller performance space than in Chichester, and the circus skills showcased were condensed, but the interaction beforehand really drew the audience in. The kids loved the staging of the Tiny Tom Thumb, peeking out from an oversized armchair, dancing among the towering Bearskin Guards on stilts, and the marvellous Jumbo the Elephant, all legs and a trunk, which this time round squirted water at the audience. For me, music is at the heart of the show and the live band, walking among the audience at the beginning of the second half, was a joy. Brian Conley in the lead was a consummate entertainer and a credible, confident Barnum, not a step out of place. His experienced Barnum has been through life, and is resigned to the knocks he's had along the way. His wife, Charity Barnum, was simply lovely, and a surreptitious wave to the kids at the end in the final bow meant they were floating on air the whole way home. Magic. Again. Encore! 

1 comment:

  1. Is Barnum still touring and when does it arrive in the West End?


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