Monday, August 27, 2018

Barnum - Canberra Philo

Review by John Lombard

Circus performers are often victims of their own skill: they make death-defying stunts look too easy.

When Barnum (Greg Sollis) mounts a tightrope near the end of the first act, the brief wobble doesn’t seem staged, and the safety mats take on renewed significance. What if Barnum doesn’t make it?

Director Anita Davenport’s down-to-earth production of Barnum captures of the thrill of circus acts by keeping them simple, and adding a dollop of humour.

Paul Sweeney’s comic strongman routine at the top of show sums up this likeable whimsy, with Sweeney struggling to heft fake weights, before finally unleashing an unexpected feat of strength.

Later in the show when one of the performers clambers up silks to the roof of Erindale Theatre, the act is more striking and thrilling than it would in a production helmed by elite athletes.

Barnum is the 1980 musical retelling of showman, politician and loveable grifter P.T. Barnum, unashamed hagiography bolstered by snappy and sometimes surprisingly beautiful songs.

Set design by Steve Galinec and Ian Croker is strategic but generous, with some elaborate pieces of set bursting onto the stage before vanishing. With the effort that must have gone into building Jumbo the elephant, it’s a wonder he didn’t pop up in every scene.

Sollis’ Barnum brings a sense of wonder best displayed in songs like “Colours of My Life”, but is slightly too straight-laced for the raw hucksterism the part demands.

Barnum’s “opposites attract” marriage to killjoy wife Charity (Julia Walker in this performance) faltered. Walker was strong in the part, and sang it very well, but the couple’s genteel spats lacked fire, and rather than hoping their relationship would survive against the odds, from their first scene I was hoping for a divorce.

Barnum is a dated musical where diversity basically just means being old or short. The show also has a pervasive sexism, true to the era but a barrier to empathy with Barnum. Barnum faces no meaningful consequence for adultery, beyond the mild inconvenience of selling his lover to a new manager.

But strong direction from Davenport and a delightful ensemble help us discover a half-forgotten musical’s secret charm, and renew our childlike wonder at the thrill of the circus.