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Roll Up! Roll Up! The Ultimate Feel-Good Barnum

27 May 2017

Barnum

by Michael Stewart, and Cy Coleman

Twickenham Operatic Society at the Hampton Hill Theatre until 27th May

Review by Mary Stoakes

Barnum tells the life history of the great American impresario and circus owner in terms of musical theatre and in his programme notes, director Ian Stark, mentions the difficulties of staging such a ‘big top’ entertainment in the confines of the Hampton Hill Theatre.

This was a less lavish production than the one which TOpS mounted just twenty years ago but ingenious use of the stage resources  and a hardworking cast brought the ‘greatest show on earth’ to renewed and exciting life in Hampton Hill.  Stunning back projections were used to delineate the many different locations and a huge elephant’s eye and part head represented the appearance of Jumbo to great effect.   Parades through the auditorium helped to further the circus illusion, as did the ‘bricklayers’ juggling routines as they built Barnum’s famous Museum.  Scene changing was slick and kept to a minimum with the more intimate scenes being delineated by the use of carefully managed drapes and screens.

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The musically accomplished band was placed at the rear of the stage, high above the action.  This tended to upset the balance with the singers below, who had difficulty in projecting over some rather overpowering accompaniment, especially in the more reflective songs.   With that criticism out of the way, the colourful big production numbers were very successful, played with great energy by the bands, both real and mimed.  The brightly costumed chorus worked their socks off with some remarkable juggling and acrobatic skills (there was even a ‘fire eater’!)  There were some exceptional song and dance routines in which all the cast sang, danced and even mimed with great precision, beautifully choreographed by Lacey Creed: especially effective were Come Follow the Band and the very different Black and White.

PT Barnum, the great impresario, was played with loads of charisma by Ben Roberts.   Many years ago Michael Crawford laid down the benchmark performance but Ben managed to bring something of his own to the role.  The ‘humbug’ was put over with just a hint of self-doubt and the more thoughtful aspects of the character were developed very believably throughout the show.   The Colours of my Life was delightful and the patter in some of his other numbers was well delivered.    We speculated as to how Ben would manage the fabled tight rope walking scene.  In the event, the illusion was well maintained and Barnum safely negotiated his way along the ‘rope’

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Ellie Barrett, a newcomer to TOpS, was the perfect foil for Barnum, as his sensible and hard-done-by wife, Chairy.  This was a well-rounded and touching performance, full of character with good singing and excellent interaction with both her stage husband and the rest of the cast.

Another stand-out performance was that of Charlie Booker as ‘General’ Tom Thumb.  The illusion of his stature was imaginatively realised by seating him initially on a huge chair and, in the solo number which followed, Charlie’s delightful personality and song and dance skills shone out.  He also made a vibrant contribution to the ensemble routines.

As Jenny Lind, hired by Barnum to perform in America after her success in Europe, Cate Blackmore with her powerful soprano voice made an instant hit in her opening appearance.    Unfortunately during her solo number she was rather let down by the amplification which tended to distort some of her notes and this reviewer felt the band were less supportive than they should have been!   Nevertheless the singing was great, following the traditions of Twickenham Operatic Society, and she looked and acted delightfully as The Swedish Nightingale

Fiona Stark, reprising her role of twenty years ago, contributed a humorous cameo as Joice Heth, the Oldest Woman Alive, whom it was claimed by Barnum was George Washington’s nurse.  Dan Doidge was in good form as the Ringmaster, presiding over the proceedings with great aplomb and doubling as James Bailey, who eventually joined Barnum to mastermind their world renowned circus.  The smaller roles were all well characterised by members of the company who showed their versatility by joining the ensemble as tumblers, jugglers, clowns, aerialists, acrobats, dancers, gymnasts, strongmen, bricklayers, passers-by, museum patrons, beefeaters, Bridgeport Pageant Choir and bands of every size.

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This was the ultimate ‘feel good’ show and once again TOpS loyal and enthusiastic following left Hampton Hill Theatre full of praise for Ian Stark’s most enjoyable production.

Mary Stoakes

May 2017

Photographs by Ace

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From → musicals, Reviews

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