7 July to 1 August 2015
Reviewed by Jane Hopkins MBE
If ever there was a show that perfectly illustrated the saying ‘behind every great man is a woman’ it’s Barnum. It was a story of a great business mind, born before his time, and a love story that panned decades.
It’s one of those theatre shows that you know you want to see, but life gets in the way and before you know it, you’ve still not got around to buying tickets and the show has passed to another town. It’s happened to me many times, but seeing Brian Conley as the lead I knew it was one I wasn’t going to let pass.
Although an American showman, PT Barnum is familiar over here; we perhaps know him as that circus chap – or simply the name that appears on the travelling show billboards we see from time to time. But I tell you now, knowing the story of the genius of Barnum is inspiring. Had he been born in later years, he would have been a multi billionaire before he was 30, I’m sure of that.
He was a dreamer; he had massive dreams, made achievable with the partnership with his long-suffering wife Chairy, who worked just as hard to make his dreams reality. The show and cast portray this superbly.
The stage is set simply; lighting and dry ice creates the varying atmospheres, from being out in the open, to a closed stage performance, where you get feel of being in an 1800’s arena, made all the more real in the wonderful Birmingham Hippodrome. Props were interesting; I did wonder how they would keep the promise of the giant elephant appearance, or the 25inch high Tom Thumb on stage – but they did!
The story takes us deep into the mind of the greatest showman on earth, he had a knack of knowing how to create theatre wherever he went that delighted the crowds. He knew his market instinctively and he gave them exactly what they wanted. It’s a lesson in business we can all learn from; Barnum didn’t have the luxury of social media yet look at his worldwide success. You can’t buy that instinct so I loved that aspect.
The cast were outstanding, those voices were sublime. For me, the hero of the Barnum story was his wife Chairy, played by Birmingham born, Linzi Hateley who put her soul into the role portraying a wife who stood firmly by her man throughout thick and thin, and my goodness there was a lot of thin. She never lost faith in her husband and with her vision too, they were the perfect, if not sometimes bittersweet partnership.
However my hero of the show is without a doubt Brian Conley who was simply show stopping. He brought his own larger than life character out to portray Barnum perfectly, his talent is astounding, from singing, dancing and even circus tricks, he was performing magic illusions whilst singing in character, and even demonstrated months of training with a tight rope walk. He has an indescribable level of energy, I’m pretty sure this is made possible by his sheer love of performing, rumour* has it that he was actually born on a stage.
An interesting fact that came out of tonight is that this was his 600th performance at the Birmingham Hippodrome. He has walked those particular boards 600 times, just think about that for a moment – this is Brian Conley, the comedian we all know and love, yet he’s also super successful theatre performer.
But what was marvellous to see, is that the Brian Conley we’ve all grown up with subtly came out from time to time, from his cheeky look during the opening scene, or the way he integrated with the audience. Marvellous, like watching an old friend on stage.
Although a musical, don’t expect a collection of well-known numbers, this is a life story, the musical aspect is there to back up the story, however when the ‘come follow the band’ starts up you’ll be singing along – whether you know the words or not! Just tap your feet or clap your hands – it’s all good. You’ll thank me for this, I’ve popped the lyrics in down below.
And when you go, get to your seat early – the ensemble cast were out among the audience doing circus tricks – it was fabulous! Not to be missed.
Come follow the band
Wherever it’s at
Let both of your feet, beat, time to the drum
And feel your heart go rat ‘a’ tat tat
A flag in your hand
A plume in your hat
Battalions of brass pass and catch the light
Is there a sight that’s sweeter then that?
* I may have started that rumour at the time of writing this.
Tickets cost from £19.50 to £48.50 (5% transaction fee may apply)
Barnum is at the Birmingham Hippodrome until 1 August 2015. For more information or to book tickets click here or call the box office on 0844 338 5000.
Birmingham Hippodrome, Hurst St, Southside, Birmingham, B5 4TB | 0844 338 5000