Barnum – July 2013

Experience: 8/10

Music by Cy Coleman, lyrics by Michael Stewart, book by Mark Bramble

With revisions by Cameron Mackintosh and Mark Bramble

Directed by Timothy Sheader

Chichester Festival Theatre in association with Cameron Mackintosh

Venue: Theatre In The Park

Date: Monday 29th July 2013

When we left this performance we were as one with our rating of the experience, but not for the usual reasons. Tonight things had gone wrong, and our enjoyment had been vastly improved as a result. Not the usual effect, but then this is theatre.

To begin with, this was our first visit to the Theatre In The Park, Chichester Festival Theatre’s temporary home while the main building, itself a ‘temporary’ venue, is given a large dose of TLC. The old dear doesn’t look well at the moment with the lettering removed and the boards up, but I’m sure she’ll be back in action next year as promised, and in much better shape.

Meanwhile, the alternative accommodation isn’t too bad at all. A brisk walk up the hill took us to the big white tent which is staging this year’s two main productions. For the less mobile, buggies whizzed up and down one side of the pathway – didn’t know those things could go so fast. The main tent has several smaller ones clustered round it for the necessary refreshments; I haven’t checked out the loos yet, but I suspect I’ll stick with the Minerva for those. The stage and auditorium were round rather than hexagonal, and the seats much comfier than I expected, up to the standard of the new ones in the Minerva. With sufficient leg room as well, we were certainly comfortable for the evening.

The set was visually appealing, with a two-tier proscenium arch at the back of the stage sporting bright red curtains, spiral staircases on each side and additional stairways with long platforms to the side of those. Beams of light rose up from the front of the stage from time to time, while ropes and other items descended through the middle of the central lighting rig. A caravan with painted sides was well used throughout the performance, and the cast generally showed off their many talents – singing, dancing, rope work, juggling, acrobatics and even face-balancing.

With such a high standard from the performers, I’m reluctant to report that the show itself didn’t do much for either of us. There are only two main parts and one minor one, the music is OK but only Come Follow The Band is memorable, and the ‘plot’ is simply a presentation of events with no jeopardy or conflict to be seen anywhere. I found it hard to engage with such an insipid story despite the best efforts of the cast, so we had settled for a 6/10 evening long before the first half was up.

To be fair, there were a number of things I liked about the staging, apart from the sheer energy and talent of the performers. The ringmaster was puppeteered by three of the cast in black clothes, and consisted of a jacket, hat and white gloves, with the booming voice coming over the speakers. He introduced the various sections of the story, and at the end, as we reached the point where Barnum joined up with Bailey, Barnum himself put on the jacket, hat and gloves to finish the story off. He then took the jacket off and left it in a little heap in the middle of the stage, adding the hat and gloves before leaving, with just those items left in the spotlight. It was a very effective ending.

There was an old lady dance early on, at the time when Barnum’s only attraction was Joyce Heith, a very old woman. After advertising her as George Washington’s nurse the customers started rolling up, and despite her advanced years Joyce showed a remarkable nimbleness to lead them all in a dance. To assist her in this, some men took the female dancers on their shoulders and by putting long dresses on the women’s arms, these tall elderly ladies were able to dance with amazing vigour. I wasn’t taken with this section overall, but it was a good effect.

When Barnum became involved in setting up the American Museum, there was another dance where bricks were thrown around. I could see they had letters on the side, and when the dance was finished these were built up to spell out ‘Barnum Museum’ in two double stacks, one on each side of the stage. The bricks on our side ended up spelling out ‘Barsum Muneum’; I don’t know if it was deliberate or not, but it was referenced briefly by Barnum when he was making the grand opening speech.

The next scene was between Barnum and his wife, Chairy. A washing line was strung across the stage, there was a pram near the front left (our side) and above them some of the troupe descended on ropes and hung there holding open umbrellas to represent leafy tree branches. It was a nice touch, and the song for this section, I Like Your Style, was also good. Things were warming up nicely, though not as much as the Museum, which was burning to the ground.

For his next venture, Barnum wanted to persuade a young man to come and join his travelling show. The youngster was meant to be very short, and given that the actor involved was of average height I wondered how they were going to stage this particular section. Very well was the answer. Tom Thumb’s parents and Barnum were hoisted up onto the shoulders of three other actors, leaving Tom looking very small. His song and dance were staged next, with the other performers involved in his routine on stilts – they didn’t do anything energetic – and for the finale, the elephant made an appearance. Well, the elephant’s legs and trunk did anyway; they descended from the ceiling, creating a marvellous effect. What with that and Tom’s tap dancing – my favourite – I was getting a bit happier with the whole show.

Jenny Lind, the Swedish Nightingale, was next, and I found this less entertaining. Her arrival was a bit fiddly – she was swept onto the stage over the bodies of several men who were lying on the ground and rolling over – and the energy dropped a little as a result. There’s also the problem of putting such a famous singer on stage; her reputation is so great that it’s hard to cast anyone good enough to do her songs. Anna O’Byrne wasn’t bad, mind you, but the build-up was so strong that she inevitably disappointed a little.

Barnum was so taken with her that he made an excuse to his wife so he could head off with Jenny – we all knew what that meant. Before he left he had to give a little demonstration of his own abilities by walking the tightrope right there on stage. The rope was strung between a post front right and the stairs back left, and after testing it for tension, Barnum climbed up onto the stairs and then onto the rope. He fell off the first time, possibly just to create more suspense, and then did a perfect walk from one end to the other second time round. He threw in extra wobbles, of course, just to keep us guessing, but we could see he was fine and dandy all the way along. We were suitably impressed, so even though he was cheating on his wife, we still applauded him for the skill he had shown.

That was where they took the interval, and to restart the performance the brass band came through the auditorium, there were beams of red and blue light flashing all around the stage, and the cast gave us Come Follow The Band, the best number in the show. There was an explosive shower of paper strips at the end of the song, filling the air with flickering confetti, and we were directly in the firing line; we were picking bits of paper off ourselves for the rest of the evening, and many of them found their way into my bag (we like to keep little souvenirs). Once the stage was cleared there was a scene in Jenny Lind’s dressing room, and I liked the way her dressing table and seat were made out of two performers. They relaxed for the early part of the scene, but when Jenny needed to change they sprang into action, holding the mirror higher so she could see herself properly.

Barnum said goodbye to Jenny, allowed another impresario to buy out her contract and returned to his wife. Then came a section when Barnum tried to be a regular businessman living a black and white life, and all the costumes became black and white. I found this section less entertaining, and since it was intended to demonstrate how boring Barnum found regular work, perhaps that’s appropriate. Later, after he went into politics, Chairy died and I felt very sad for the poor man; the relationship between the two of them had been one of the better aspects of the show, and I found I cared enough to mind her passing. She walked away up some steps which were held by performers, and when Barnum looked around, she and the steps were gone. This led into a short scene where he tried to get a nomination for a senatorial seat to fulfil a promise he’d made to Chairy, but the party officials had decided on someone less troublesome and he was out of the running.

Just then Mr Bailey arrived, and at the point where he was about to persuade Barnum to go back into circus life through a song, the front of house manager came on stage to make an announcement. The band hadn’t started up the music for the song, and Barnum and Bailey headed off almost immediately. Apparently there was an electrical problem which meant they had to power down the lights and reboot the system (or something) so would we please stay in our seats as it would only be a few minutes before the performance was resumed. Fair enough, we had nowhere else to be, so the audience relaxed and some quiet chatter broke out. Barnum rushed out after the announcement to tell us not to panic, which gave us a laugh. There were ushers with torches at each exit, so even for the very brief spell when the main lights all went out there was still some visibility in the Tent, and when some other lights came on, presumably emergency ones, we weren’t badly off at all.

It turned out the spotlights were still working as well, as Barnum came out again to talk to us and they used one to light him. He explained that there were several tricks they’d had to drop from the show, so he would do some face-balancing for us now. He ran off stage again to get something to use, and when he came back on a few moments later with a wheelbarrow, I assumed the items he was going to use would be in the barrow. Not so; he actually intended to balance the wheelbarrow itself on his face. He built us up well, explaining that it could all go horribly wrong, and priming us to punch the air with our fist and say ‘nice try’ if it did. We even had a group rehearsal, but in the end it wasn’t needed as he successfully balanced the wheelbarrow by the end of one handle on his chin; it never looked like falling off. Amazing. This was better than the real show.

As we applauded that trick, he rushed off stage to find something else to use, and after a longer pause, returned carrying a stepladder. Again he built up the suspense, and then the lights came back on. We applauded the lights, but Barnum still carried on to do another amazing feat of balancing, with the opened stepladder resting by one corner of one foot on his chin. We were tremendously impressed, and applauded even more. If the lights hadn’t come back on at that point, goodness knows what he would have come up with next. The front of house manager came on again to say there would be short pause – health and safety presumably – and then the show would continue.

I was aware that it might be difficult to get back to the situation we had been in when the show had been stopped: Barnum had just lost his wife and was very sad, Bailey was trying to persuade him to become his partner, etc. When they did get underway, Barnum and Bailey marched on stage to take up their positions, and then Barnum said “where were we?” – nearly brought the house down. Bailey then asked him for some advice, and he ad-libbed “Put 50p in the meter” – equally funny. After that they settled down, and it was a great way to get us hooked back into the regular performance.

We were almost at the end; there was just Join The Circus to go, which is when Barnum put on the coat, hat and gloves, and then the finale. We had been so livened up by this extra performance during the hiatus that we left the show much happier than we had expected to be earlier. I‘ve noticed in the past that musicals in particular have a drawback: they’re so heavily choreographed that in many ways they’re not ‘live’ theatre at all, especially when there’s a lot of high-tech movement of scenery involved. Despite the tremendous amount of energy put out by the performers, I’ve often felt there was something missing, and tonight’s difficulties made that all the clearer. The real ‘live’ performance happened when Christopher Fitzgerald (Barnum) came out and interacted directly with us, raising laughs and creating a much stronger connection with the audience. He may still have been in character, but either way it was a lovely experience, and one we’ll cherish. Whatever the problems were, they hadn’t happened before, so this may well be a one-off.

Tamsin Carroll was an excellent Chairy, and Christopher Fitzgerald was a fantastic Barnum. Even without the extra tricks, he captured the essential showmanship of Barnum’s character, and it was no real surprise that he could handle an audience as well as he did towards the end. We also felt that casting someone unknown in this country was a wise move. When we saw the Michael Crawford production years ago we weren’t that taken with it, and nothing stuck in our memories apart from a sense that it was a star vehicle. It’s certainly that, but when done without a ‘star’ (and with some revisions since the Michael Crawford days) it can be just as good or even better. Not something I would go out of my way to see again, but an impressive achievement for Chichester Festival Theatre in their temporary space.

© 2013 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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