Having seen “If Only” at the Minerva theatre in the afternoon, we took a leisurely stroll through the town to Marks and Spencer to buy a picnic, which we subsequently enjoyed sprawled out in the glorious early evening sunshine in the grounds of Chichester Cathedral. Prawn crackers, various salads, lots of fruit and a bottle of Macon Burgundy. Occasionally the CCTV camera turned its lens towards us, and I did wonder if perhaps we were breaking some bye-law, but I doubt whether the Powers That Be were over-concerned at a middle-aged couple taking a relaxed, if slightly boozy, repast in God’s Garden.
Then it was back to the Festival theatre site. Not to the Festival Theatre itself, as it is currently being renovated to celebrate its first fifty years. I am sure they will do a splendid job of it. So there are no shows in that theatre this summer; but they have come up with a splendid alternative, the Theatre in the Park. The park in question is Oaklands Park, adjacent to the Festival theatre, and the Park theatre is a big top canvas type structure that resembles a circus tent – and what better show to revive for this season than Cy Coleman and Michael Stewart’s Barnum. It’s an enchanting walk up the path to the theatre – staff are now positioned at various points along the way to welcome you, much like the gamesmakers at last year’s Olympics. Once you reach the theatre there is a real summer circus vibe, and inside they have constructed a really useful and lively acting space – horseshoe shaped, much like the Festival theatre, with a big round stage and circussy drapes at the back that hide the band and all the backstage gubbins.
I remember going to see the original production of Barnum at the London Palladium with the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle – on 3rd August 1981, according to my ticket stub; look – I even still have my invitation to Jenny Lind’s free concert on the White House lawn! The show starred Michael Crawford, who was probably at the peak of his stage prowess at the time and he gave the most starriest of star performances. He had this extraordinary ability to convey showmanship and vulnerability at the same time, and no opportunity was missed to impress you with his style and panache or to take you all the way down to whichever emotional depths he wanted. Mrs Chrisparkle and I also saw a touring production in July 1996 at the Wycombe Swan with Andrew O’Connor in the role. I remember enjoying it very much, but it doesn’t seem to have left a mark in history.
And now on to 2013 and our new Barnum, Christopher Fitzgerald; a rising star on Broadway but pretty much unknown in the UK. At 5ft 5in, he’s a mini powerhouse of talent; engaging, funny and he packs a great vocal punch. He’s great at doing clever comic business and communicates well with the audience. On the night we saw it, which admittedly was still a preview, he didn’t get all the way with the tightrope act, although I understand he’s got better since then! Mrs Chrisparkle and I really enjoyed his performance; but comparisons with Michael Crawford would be odious, so I won’t go down that route. He really did excel though, in the “Barnum’s Lament” sequence, sat on the edge of the stage looking as though the Earth had caved in on him. That’s when he really tapped in to the emotions.
Tamsin Carroll is Chairy, his long-suffering wife, and she gives a cracker of a performance. I’m sure every husband in the audience winced at her withering expressions as she attempted to keep her Taylor in check. She’s also a great singer and has terrific stage presence. One of the perplexing things about the show is how readily Chairy accepts Barnum back after he’s been gallivanting with Jenny Lind for six months; considering that at other times he has to act the lion tamer to her man-eating beast, it’s a bit of a character inconsistency. Nevertheless, Miss Carroll and Mr Fitzgerald together create a terrific stage partnership.
As for the rest of the cast, they’re all excellent; the majority of the other main characters have one big song each, and they all carry them off superbly. I loved Aretha Ayeh as Joice Heth, the oldest woman in the world, singing that great song “Thank God I’m Old” wheeling around in her bath chair; it comes quite early in the show and really gives it a superb lift. Jack North is a cheeky little General Tom Thumb tapping his way through “Bigger Isn’t Better”, nearly but not quite being upstaged by the inventive stage appearance of Jumbo the elephant. And there’s a fabulous performance by Anna O’Byrne as Jenny Lind, who really could be the new Swedish nightingale; she’s stunningly beautiful, has the voice of an angel; no wonder Barnum was led astray.
The staging of the show is really arresting – the big numbers are exceptional and memorable. The band members entering the auditorium individually at the beginning of the second act for “Come Follow The Band” sent a shiver up my spine – but then I do always have a weak spot for traditional circus; plus we got some great acrobatics performed right up close to us. “Join The Circus” is a stirringly wonderful song that the whole cast and audience can get behind; but definitely one of the main highlights for me was “One Brick At A Time”, where the whole ensemble chuck bricks around the stage to build the American Museum, and it’s a mesmerising routine. One dropped brick and the whole thing would be a disaster!
It’s an ensemble that’s chock-full of talent; amongst them, I was really impressed by James O’Connell who is a great dancer considering he’s a relatively big chap and in the final scenes of the show he turns in a very convincing appearance as Mr Bailey, Barnum’s business partner with whom he worked for the last ten years of his life. There are some strong guys in that ensemble too, especially those holding the planks of wood that Chairy climbs up; there’s obviously an enormous amount of respect and trust between cast members – the two guys that hold her secure as they turn the plank around with her standing on it do a fantastic job!
It’s an intriguing decision to remove the traditional role of Ringmaster and make it into a puppet-style performance with an off-stage voice; I’m not sure it has quite the same impact as the original presentation – Mr William C Witter who played the Ringmaster at the Palladium was constantly doing circus tricks and stunts throughout the show. However, we loved the simple but effective suggestion of the fire at the museum by the use of flares thrown down on to the stage; and I should also give mention to the brilliant band under the direction of Adam Rowe, whom the audience didn’t want to let go home as we kept demanding encores after the show had finished! They make a fantastic contribution to the show.
You come away with a lightness of heart and a touch of magic in your soul, which is only enhanced by the nighttime view of the park and the lights outside that lead you back to civilisation and the car park. It’s a superb revival with some class performances and a great ensemble and I would be very surprised if it doesn’t get a well-deserved transfer. If you’re in Chichester this summer, it’s a must.
PS Last year, on our eternal quest for some decent gluten-free breakfasts, we discovered Spires Bakery on Crane Street. We went back again this year, and it’s as good as ever. Not only did we have top quality cooked breakfasts on Sunday morning, but we popped over for a cheeky Saturday lunch, where Mrs C asked for a Brie and Bacon gluten-free toasted sandwich and she said it was to die for. High praise indeed.