Barnum, Theatre in the Park, Chichester, UK – review

While Chichester’s main Festival Theatre is partially rebuilt and extended, it has erected a large tent on the lawn beside it. Inside, the £800,000 structure is clearly modelled on the Festival space: its geometry is based on roundels rather than hexagons, but it is broadly the same size and configuration.

And, of course, a big tent with a ring-shaped stage is a conceptually perfect venue for a revival of Cy Coleman’s 1980 musical based on the life and career of showman Phineas Taylor Barnum. Mark Bramble’s script envisages staging as, if not an outright circus, certainly a succession of carny-style spectacles and routines, and periodically the entire cast goes into full-throttle greatest-show-on-earth mode: at one point a rope-dancing acrobat was working two feet away from me (and several above me) in the aisle.

In the title role (originated by Jim Dale), Christopher Fitzgerald is on the compact side for such a larger-than-life figure. However, what he lacks in stature and magnetism he makes up in energy: the part entails not just acting, singing and dancing, but acrobatics, prestidigitation and even a tightrope walk, executed by Fitzgerald sans fakery and while finishing off a musical number.

Tamsin Carroll is more naturally engaging as his wife Charity or “Chairy”, a realist with whom he constantly but always lovingly clashed (a recurring motif has it that they know they’re all right whenever they start arguing again). Other figures include General Tom Thumb, played by full-size actor Jack North with his interlocutors clambering on to the shoulders of others to maintain the perspective, and Jenny Lind the operatic “Swedish nightingale” who in Anna O’Byrne’s performance sounds rather more Welsh.

Timothy Sheader is an accomplished director of musicals, and is here assisted by co-choreographer Liam Steel, late of DV8. Yet for all its structural and presentational exuberance, the show never rises to the source material.

Barnum served as mayor of New York, was twice bankrupted and also became the richest man in the US, but his life and his life-long passion for imaginative forms of “humbug” are compacted into a show that runs for barely two hours, including a generous interval, and that entertains for its duration but leaves little lasting impression.

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