“God I hope it’s the understudy,” I said to my bemused daughter as we walked past the posters of Brian Conley as P.T. Barnum outside the WMC.
Being twelve she didn’t have years of The Brian Conley #Show indelibly etched in her mind. Or the memory of him hamming his way through Jolson, as the eponymous Al, in front of a Terry Wogan or Des O’Connor audience. The horror of those ‘90s variety show flash backs can still keep me awake at night.
So taking my cue from the innocence of youth I kept an open mind and took my seat in the side balcony. Below us the action was already beginning. Like something out of a Gifford or Zippo's Circus show, a woman was walking on her hands between the aisles while a juggler in a top hat twirled skittles in the air to her right. On either side of the stalls stood a man, throwing a ball some 30ft to his opposite number. The ball, coming perilously close to hitting many an aged audience member on the head, was always caught. In the circle some sections of the crowd were already on their feet, clapping as one, and the show hadn’t even started yet!
When it did, Conley did not disappoint. For the first ten minutes I was worried. His opening ad lib shtick with the front row got me twitchy – was I going to be watching Brian or Barnum for the next 2 ½ hours? But once the plot proper begun the ego went away and the professional came out to play. And boy did he play. Catching plates dropped from his arm, strutting on stilts, singing with great comic and dramatic timing and, of course, walking the tightrope. Conley was there for the audience throughout. There was no grandstanding, he wanted to make sure we had a great time, and we did.
Barnum, a loose biography of the great impresario and ‘humbugger’ P.T. Barnum is not just a star-driven musical. It is a dream for the small chorus who entertained us pre-show. They moved fluidly from their main circus roles to become anything from punters to politicians. From amongst the core of brilliant dancers there are great opportunities for star turns in the side show performances of General Tom Thumb and The Oldest Woman in the World.
Musically the show got better and better. The first half gave us too many great numbers to name. My Spotify research had left me a little cold toward Cy Coleman’s score, but seeing the pieces on stage transformed them. The standard Colours of My Life, creating the central theme of finding the adventure in the life you #Live, came vividly alive in the context of the production. But it was the second half that ratcheted up the set-piece spectacle with Come Follow the Band, Black and White and Join the Circus.
I was worried that the older leads, already established in marriage from the outset, would provide little emotional interest for my pre-teen companion. The musical is sweet in its presentation of family values and despite the colour provided by the set and costumes, does show its age. A whisper of “It’s my favorite show ever,” soon put my final doubts to rest. It was official - we were won over by Barnum and Brian Conley too, humbug or not. #Music