Phineas Taylor Barnum, the great 19th century American circus entrepreneur, specialised in what he called the art of humbug - the ability to deceive or mislead. But this being the festive season with multiple productions of A Christmas Carol doing the rounds as ever, I'm afraid I could only think of wanting to invoke Ebenezer Scrooge's famous exclamation “Bah Humbug” instead as I watched the Menier Chocolate Factory's revival of the 1980 biographical musical Barnum.
That’s because this particular Barnum has no way of deceiving or misleading the audience that he is up for the job. In Marcus Brigstocke's painstakingly hard-working performance, you can only see the effort rather than the skill, let alone delight and playfulness, required. There's something excruciating watching an actor so badly miscast and out of his depth; his failure to complete the Act One finale tight rope set piece without falling off repeatedly unfortunately became a metaphor for his performance (apparently he achieved it at earlier previews, though he partly salvaged the situation on press night by ad-libbing that he hoped we hadn't ordered interval drinks as the ice would have melted by the time he completed the routine). That he can only barely hold a tune, and has numerous songs to sing, only amplifies the problem, in every sense.
It’s a great pity as there's no show without a Barnum, a role originally played on Broadway by Jim Dale in a Tony-winning performance and at the London Palladium by Michael Crawford. Yet Gordon Greenberg's boisterous production, despite this central and fatal failure, has pretty much everything else going for it.
It is superbly designed by Paul Farnsworth as an immersive circus environment, with the audience seated in the full round of the reconfigured Menier, and sparklingly lit by Philip Gladwell. A breathtakingly athletic ensemble leap, tumble and cartwheel with incredible agility.
But their skill - and the musical glories of singers like Laura Pitt-Pulford as Barnum's wife Chairy and Celinde Schoenmaker as the Swedish songbird Jenny Lind - only amplify the deficiencies of the star they are supposedly supporting.
Mark Bramble - also currently represented in the West End by a production of 42nd Street that he co-wrote the book of and directs - provides a book that's slight, but Cy Coleman's score has plenty of delightful melodies, and is brassily played by Alex Parker's band.