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Review: Barnum at the Marlowe Theatre

Dazzling and intriguing in equal measure, there are few shows that open with the kind of joyous celebratory rush that Barnum serves up to its expectant audience.

Perhaps it is only fitting for the man famed for the creating the self-styled greatest show on earth, that the beguiling whirl of circus performers greeting our central character sets the scene in grand technicolour style.

As one of America’s first millionaires who was said to have counted Abraham Lincoln and Mark Twain among his friends, the life and times of Phineas Taylor (PT) Barnum are indeed ripe territory for a musical.

While he did not in fact take to the circus business until later life, his rollercoaster adventures in showbusiness and politics offer a treasure trove of material that translates impressively to the stage.

The show’s current star Brian Conley is said to have been so impressed with the production for its revived run under a big top tent at Chichester Festival Theatre that he simply had to play the role.

After being performed in such a seemingly perfect setting, questions would inevitably emerge as to whether its return to the stage could match its past glories. Thankfully, the elegant lines of the new Marlowe are equal to the task, and prove a strong backdrop for the show.

Possessing plenty of charisma, Conley slips easily into the role of our circus impresario, introducing the cream of 19 century thrills, or smoke-and-mirrors “humbug” as he refers to his acts.

The roll-call of finely-crafted characters in this production which was first unleashed on Broadway in 1980, spans everything from the world’s oldest woman Joice Heth, whom Barnum claims is 160 and nursed George Washington, to tiny Tom Thumb, a mysterious mermaid and Swedish opera songbird Jenny Lind.

To its credit, Cy Coleman’s musical score rattle along at a breezy pace capturing the classic sounds of the circus, despite lacking the obvious hits of some West End productions.

Though Conley is most renowned for his overall abilities as an entertainer than as a singer, he carries his role with gusto alongside his stage wife Chairy, who is played by the equally gifted Linzi Hateley, whose Broadway talents shine.

Her vocals are given full flight on a number of its songs, particularly in the show's unexpectedly poignant moments. such as with the ballad I like Your Style duet with Barnum.

Elsewhere, the singing talent of the Kimberly Blake as the show's diva songstress Lind offers another highlight with the impressive Love Makes Such Fools of Us All, luring the star of the show on an expensive tour that takes him away from his devoted wife, who has stood by him for better or worse.

Its principle players are ably supported by an incredibly athletic ensemble cast, who juggle, dance and clown their way around the theatre to ensure the show proves a genuinely immersive experience.

Amusingly, Barnum is thought not to have coined the phrase "There's a sucker born every minute" which somehow became associated with him over time - but it's a line that's used to great effect through the show - along with a few smart surprises from Conley as he joins in placing himself right at the centre of the circus entertainment.

The show's upbeat closing number, Join The Circus provides a cracking ending to what is a highly enjoyable night out. There's something for everyone here with its laughter, tears and a sprinkling of magic along its highly entertaining journey.

- Barnum is at the Marlowe Theatre until Saturday, July 4. For tickets call 01227 787787 or visit www.marlowetheatre.com

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