Menier Chocolate Factory, London ★☆☆☆☆
WELL before the climactic song of this show’s first act, during which its star Marcus Brigstocke fell off a tightrope four times on press night, it was already pretty clear that the comedian is not suited to the role of greatest showman on Earth.
Cy Coleman’s 1980 musical is inspired by the real life PT Barnum, an irrepressible purveyor of spectacle. A cross between ringmaster and impresario, Barnum and his circus of high fliers and freaks wowed audiences across 1880s America.
It’s a role that requires every fibre of the performer playing him to be tuned and honed to the max if he is to convince as one of the most irrepressible and irresistible characters in musical theatre.
He was first played on Broadway and the West End by Jim Dale and Michael Crawford, both of whom set the bar high. And Hugh Jackman plays him in an upcoming film about the showman. He’s that kind of character, one that needs a performer who can dominate the stage or screen like a beam of light.
But in Gordon Greenberg’s production the energy levels plummet every time the focus turns from the talented company to its star. Brigstocke’s voice is fatally underpowered and the gestures with which his Barnum drums up enthusiasm are delivered with all the pizzazz of a mumbled ‘Ta da!’
The Menier Chocolate Factory are masters of the musical and you can’t help but wonder how the producers and director ever came to this casting decision. You have to feel for the fire-eaters, tumblers and acrobats who fizz round like moths circling a dying candle.
Feel too for the talented Laura Pitt-Pulford as Barnum’s long-suffering wife, doubling now as Brigstocke’s equally suffering co-star.
And yes, feel sorry for the bewilderingly bad Brigstocke who repeatedly got back on that tightrope, eventually taking the hands of two cast members to help him across. Respect for that, at least.