Come follow the bland…

Or, the tour of the Chichester Festival Theatre production of Barnum, as seen yesterday at the Lowry in Salford. Bullet points again, because if the show’s writers can’t be arsed to write a proper book for their musical, I can’t be arsed to write proper prose for the review.

* Brian Conley is really, really, really, REALLY annoying on television.

* Oddly, the qualities that make him so annoying on TV – the glib insincerity, the cheesy grin – work well here.

* His voice is rougher around the edges than it used to be, but he can still sing. More than that, onstage he has presence. He commands attention, and he delivers the score’s rapid-fire patter songs with considerable aplomb. And most of all, he knows how to work an audience, and that’s vital – whoever plays Barnum needs to be a performer as much as an actor. Mr. Conley, somewhat to my surprise – as I said, I can’t stand him on TV – is absolutely terrific.

* So it’s a pity the writers give him so little to do – which, yes, is an odd thing to say about a role in which the actor almost never leaves the stage, and performs a variety of circus tricks as well as singing, dancing and (in theory) acting.

* Here’s the problem: for all the razzle-dazzle of the presentation, Mark Bramble’s book for the show is thin to the point of being emaciated. It’s little more than a set of flashcards; there’s no point of view, the characters are drawn so sketchily that they aren’t even cardboard, and you end the show knowing very little more about P.T. Barnum than you knew going in. Sure, the show’s authors give us the barest biographical details, but there’s no attempt at all to explore what made the man tick. We don’t see where he comes from, we don’t see how he learns the art of humbug (an unkind person might call it con-artistry), and there’s more or less no attempt to explore whatever contradictions might be inherent in, for example, a man who made a considerable fortune by essentially stretching the truth to breaking-point AND who toured the lecture circuit promoting temperance. He’s a loveable con-artist at the beginning of the show, and a loveable con-artist at the end of it, and that’s pretty much all the show’s writers have to say about him.

* We don’t even get much sense of why Bramble, Coleman and Stewart thought this story was worth telling on the musical stage. I mean, Mr. Bramble provides a lengthy programme note on the subject, which is lovely of him, but the effort of writing it might have been better spent on adding some depth – any depth – to the show’s actual book. As it is, the show’s writers seem to be perversely determined to present their subject in the blandest terms possible. It’s as if they simply expect us to accept that Barnum was a great showman, and then just go along for the ride.

* And of course that’s not enough to hang a show on, even when you throw a dozen or so Cy Coleman songs into the mix. The show’s book might be tissue-thin, but the bouncy, brassy score is (mostly) great fun, even if it isn’t first-tier Cy Coleman.

* And yet, despite the (many) flaws in the writing, the show is never less than entertaining. That’s partly because of the excellent ensemble cast, and partly because the physical production is an absolute knockout. Presented more or less as a succession of sideshow acts, the show famously incorporates all manner of circus tricks, from tightrope-walking and fire-eating (both by the actor playing Barnum himself) to trapeze work, stilt-walking, and acrobatics (other members of the cast). There’s always something to look at, even if there’s almost never anything to think about.

* As Chairy, Barnum’s long-suffering wife, Linzi Hateley is some kind of miracle. Of course her singing is peerless – in terms of the vocal requirements, she’s way overqualified for the role – but she manages to create a warm, touching character out of writing that doesn’t even rise to the level of a succession of clichés. ‘The Colours Of My Life’, as a song, is limper than fortnight-old lettuce, but she turns her half of it  into something lovely, and manages to make you forget that the words she’s singing are absolutely vacuous.

* This production is based on the Chichester Festival revival of two years ago (though Timothy Sheader, that production’s director, didn’t bother to show up to direct it again, and his direction has been recreated by an underling – which might matter if the show’s book had any dramatic content at all, so it’s a good thing it doesn’t), so of course it substitutes the new ‘Barnum’s Lament’ (an aria for Barnum midway through the second act, cobbled together from bits of the show’s other musical numbers) in place of ‘The Prince of Humbug’. It’s not an improvement. The show, up until that point, has been entirely superficial. The song comes an hour and a half of stage time into the show, and it’s the very first time we’ve been asked to take an interest in Barnum’s emotional state. Therefore, of course, it just sits there. It’s jarringly out of step with everything we’ve seen and heard up until that moment; Mr. Conley does his best to sell it, but it simply doesn’t work.

* All of this makes it sound like the show is a disaster. It isn’t. It’s great fun if you simply treat it as a spectacle with songs. Stop and think about what you’re watching, though – at all – and the whole confection quickly begins to deflate. I said earlier that it’s never less than entertaining, and that’s true, but it’s never more than that either, and you always have the sense that there’s a much more interesting story that could have been told about P.T. Barnum’s life.

* One more thing: the biggest laugh came when Barnum announced he’d borrowed the money to finance – God knows, maybe Jenny Lind’s contract, or perhaps a Taco Bell franchise – from “a reputable Scottish bank”. Ouch.

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