Tag Archives: Michael Stewart

BARNUM

★★★★

Watermill Theatre

BARNUM at the Watermill Theatre

★★★★

“it’s the songs and the thrill of the circus big top that makes this production sing”

Cy Coleman’s Barnum is a big, big-top musical in the small Watermill Theatre proving that size doesn’t matter, as this is a big bold production. The skillset of the company of 18 actor-musician / circus performers is outstanding and between them must have played over 100 different musical instruments.

The tale of P.T. Barnum the nineteenth-century impresario who sells the American dream with his “humbug” to become the greatest showman – and like many after him, takes his sucker-deluding talents into politics.

Jonathan O’Boyle’s production is brilliantly conceived, even with Mark Bramble’s weak book as it flashes through Barnum’s colourful life – it’s the songs and the thrill of the circus big top that makes this production sing.

As the audience walk into the auditorium from the garden, where due to the inclement weather there had been a very brief pre-show; on stage we find just three acrobats warming up on their trapeze hoops. From the get-go the audience see beautiful shapes, spins and strength (circus director Amy Panter). With just the three performers the stage looked full and yet the next minute there were eighteen and it looked wonderful.

The pace of the choreography by Oti Mabuse is breath-taking, and the four key acrobatic dancers Emily Odunsi, André Rodrigues, Dan Holland and Kiera Brunton (who is a pocket rocket of talent) handle the space and the tightly performed routines with pure joy.

Matt Rawle in the titular role does everything right but it is hard to see any of the “attractions” that should make Barnum mesmeric. But the iconic scene when Barnum literally walks a tightrope towards his lover, he does with aplomb. This is a love triangle in soft-focus. Charity Barnum (Monique Young) invests more heart towards her errant husband, than might be written and sings with true love. Whilst Barnum’s lover, the opera star Jenny Lind he named the Swedish nightingale (Penny Ashmore), is sung beautifully in full soprano. The character has the best exit in the show as she is lifted and slowly spun on high – wearing a wonderful red creation with a very long train. Do watch out for Ashmore in the finale, as by then she is dancing on pointe, singing and playing the Irish harp!

In this production it is the amazing musical arrangements (Orchestrator and Musical Supervisor George Dyer) that win the day. The company literally manage to sing as they dance as they play the piccolo and in a breath swop to a double bass or run to play one of the two honkytonk pianos. Act Two starts with Tom Sowinski on solo sousaphone as the number ‘Come Follow the Band’ grows into a rousing song with full company marching choreographed moves whilst playing a plethora of brass and percussion instruments. Followed fast on its heels with the song ‘Black and White’ as colour literally bursts back onto the stage, as Barnum brings colour back into his life. Josh Barnett is the onstage musical director doing a fantastic job whilst juggling many musical instruments and several key roles in the show.

The costumes are perfect throughout and the theatre’s small proscenium stage is turned into a believable red, white and blue circus big top, all designed by Lee Newby. With colourful lighting design by Jai Morjaria, bringing it all to life.

A fun night out and certainly another hit for the Watermill Theatre who clearly know how to put on a big show.

 


BARNUM at the Watermill Theatre

Reviewed on 9th July 2024

by Debbie Rich

Photography by Pamela Raith

 


 

 

More shows we’ve reviewed at this venue:

MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING | ★★★★ | April 2024
THE LORD OF THE RINGS | ★★★★★ | August 2023
MANSFIELD PARK | ★★★★ | June 2023
RAPUNZEL | ★★★★ | November 2022
WHISTLE DOWN THE WIND | ★★★★ | July 2022
SPIKE | ★★★★ | January 2022

BARNUM

BARNUM

Click here to see our Recommended Shows page

 

42nd Street

42nd Street

★★★★

Upstairs at the Gatehouse

42nd Street

42nd Street

Upstairs at the Gatehouse

Reviewed – 13th December 2019

★★★★

 

“we are swept along by the sheer feelgood factor built into the show, and the absolute precision and fluidity of this all-singing, all-dancing cast”

 

Based on the novel by Bradford Ropes, and the 1933 film of the same name, “42nd Street” is a Jukebox musical of sorts. There were barely five songs in the film, so the show ransacks composer Harry Warren’s and lyricist Al Dubin’s stockpile of numbers they had written for other films at around the same time. Whilst this is a bonus, there are moments when it appears obvious that these musical numbers were not written for this show, and they feel shoehorned into Michael Stewart’s and Mark Bramble’s whimsical and high-spirited script. But this is easily forgiven as we are swept along by the sheer feelgood factor built into the show, and the absolute precision and fluidity of this all-singing, all-dancing cast.

The show focuses on the efforts of celebrated but tough director Julian Marsh to mount the ‘greatest musical on Broadway’ during the Great Depression. He needs a hit and he needs the money, so he hires fading diva, Dorothy Brock, because of the investment pouring from her sugar-daddy. Meanwhile, out-of-town Peggy gate-crashes the auditions stealing hearts, and then the spotlight. An accident takes Dorothy out of the show and the rest is beautifully predictable and heart-warmingly uplifting.

The defining moment of the plot, just before Peggy steps in to save the show, occurs just before interval when the director cancels the performance and urges the audience to collect their refund at box office. A clever theatrical device that sets up the second act; but one that also reflects this particular production. Stylistically it is a show of two halves. Initially the pace is a touch laboured, lacking the light-hearted approach needed to do justice to the throwaway comedy of the dialogue. There are sparks, but the fire doesn’t quite catch. But, boy, the second act comes into its own, as do the cast. “42nd Street” depicts a bygone era, before reality celebrity and social media, when talent was what made a star. And Katie and John Plews have assembled a star-studded team. Each a triple-threat, they work together as a synchronised unit with barely a foot or a note out of place. Simon Adkins’ choreography could easily quickstep down Highgate Hill into the West End.

The show belongs to them all, the ensemble and principals alike. Kate-Anne Fenton’s Peggy is a light under a bushel, humble yet unafraid to be coaxed into living her dream. She is well complemented by the heartthrob voice and looks of Rory Shafford as Billy Lawlor. Tamsin Dowsett pitches just right the understated hamminess of Dorothy Brock, whose broken ankle fractures her career but heals her broken heart. Pulling the strings, though, is Alex Wadham’s commanding performance as the tough yet tender Julian Marsh. Still, the generosity of the leading players leaves the doors wide open for the minor characters to steal any scene they can. Charlie Burt is a ball of energy who lights up the stage, eclipsed only by the dynamic chorus trio of Helen Rose, Jessica Wright and Samantha Noël; their close-knit harmonies strikingly evocative of the period. An age brought even closer to us by Emily Bestow’s razzmatazz fashion parade of costume, and the array of well-known and well-loved showtunes, including ‘Lullaby of Broadway’, ‘We’re In The Money’, ‘Dames’, ‘I Only Have Eyes For You’ and the eponymous ‘42nd Street’.

A little slow off the starting line, we forget by the time we’ve reached the rousing and moving finale. And the show is only at the beginning of its run. Like Marsh says to the blossoming Peggy as she’s seconds out from her Broadway debut; “You’re going out a youngster, but you gotta come back a star”, this show will undoubtedly grow into a sure-fire hit.

 

Reviewed by Jonathan Evans

Photography by Darren Bell

 


42nd Street

Upstairs at the Gatehouse until 26th January

 

Last ten shows reviewed at this venue:
Nice Work if You Can Get It | ★★★★ | December 2018
Bad Girls The Musical | ★★★ | February 2019
Strike Up The Band | ★★★★ | March 2019
The Marvelous Wonderettes | ★★★★ | April 2019
Flat Out | ★★★★ | June 2019
Agent 14 | | August 2019
Pericles, Prince Of Tyre | ★★★ | August 2019
Working | ★★★★ | September 2019
A Modest Little Man | ★★★★ | October 2019
I Do! I Do! | ★★★½ | October 2019

 

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