When Britain’s best all round entertainer plays America’s all time greatest showman you can expect great things…and in this newly revised production, “you sure get them”.
I’ve spent the last 24 hours pondering why Brian Conley is so good…and it all seems to come down to one word; ‘rapport.’ Last night it took him 5 seconds to get to his first adlib, and the audience 10 seconds to burst out into spontaneous applause. The very fact that he is enjoying himself so much comes somersaulting over the footlights and into your lap.
His patter is delivered like a gravely Sergeant Bilko…the puns perfectly pinned. He revels in charmingly corny comedy routines and has great fun teasing the audience about the circus stunts he’s supposed to perform; his own spontaneous laughter setting everyone else off. And when he’s called upon to play out the tragedies in Barnum’s life, he holds the moment perfectly …not a second too long. It’s a master class in showmanship.
Needless to say, this show about a showman is bursting at the seams with life and athleticism; a ripe concoction of music hall, circus and freak show. Barnum’s autobiography was the second best selling book in America (after the Bible) and the biographical progression does make for an episodic evening. But the set-pieces are all winners… from the arrival of the world’s biggest elephant, Jumbo (even The Grand Theatre is not big enough to get all of him in) to the swinging flight of the Swedish Nightingale Jenny Lind.
In the central pathos of the show, Barnum is torn in two by his lasting love for his supportive wife Chairy, rumbustiously portrayed by the excellent Linzi Hateley, and his desires for the soaring, ice-cool soprano, beautifully played by Kimberley Blake. His dilemma is shown with sensitivity and deep respect …. and brings a true tear when he loses them both.
There’s some lovely, knowing kid-ology when the scenery and Conley himself are scaled up to introduce Barnum’s most famous turn, Tom Thumb (bouncily brought to life by Mikey Jay-Heath) and when it becomes apparent that the famously tossed coin isn’t all it is supposed to be. And the trick to get Barnum’s burgeoning audience to leave is a great gag.
All in all, it’s a safe, comfortable, glossy, slightly sugary but eminently excitable show; with some very serviceable songs and endless tumbling acrobatics. The crowd called out for more.
Visit www.grandtheatre.info for bookings & information about Wolverhampton’s Grand Theatre