Has the Menier Chocolate Factory, surefire showcase for countless musicals over the last ten years, finally hit a bump in the road? Casting popular Radio 4 comedian Marcus Brigstocke as the ‘world’s greatest showman’ P T Barnum in the musical based on his life is, in the eyes of most critics, an epic mistake on the scale of letting Ed Balls do Strictly.
Except, unlike Balls whose comic numptiness was confined to his own hapless routines, he spoils it for everyone else. Balls charmed TV audiences by referring to his own ‘dad dancing’ but Brigstocke has invented ‘dad singing’: his inability to put over a song, or carry the show as its central and charismatic star just sucks the razzle dazzle out of everything that surrounds him.
Which is a tragedy, because what surrounds him seems a clever and tightly-designed miniaturised circus-in-the-round with two gobsmackingly good leading ladies — Laura Pitt-Pulford as Barnum’s longsuffering wife, and Celinde Schoenmaker whose pure voice brings to life soprano Jennie Lind, the ‘Swedish Nightingale’ who was also the reason Mrs Barnum had to be so longsuffering.
To give Brigstocke his due, he is good at the ad lib bantering in a sort of verbal hand-to-hand combat with the audience, and the best moment at press night was when he tried to persuade the chief critic of the Daily Mail, to play a kazoo in the opening routine ‘Come Follow the Band’. After that, it all went downhill, including three falls from the not-very-high wire and a slew of one- and two-star maulings from the papers.
A new film, The Greatest Showman, opens on Boxing Day with Hugh Jackman as Barnum and promises to reveal much more about the the freak-show impresario with a fresh score and a genuine star.
See that instead.
Barnum, Menier Chocolate Factory, 53 Southwark Street, SE1 1RU. Until 3 March 2018. Tickets £25-57.50