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 The Theatreguide.London Review

In March 2020 the covid-19 epidemic forced the closure of all British theatres. Some companies adapted by putting archive recordings of past productions online, others by streaming new shows. Until things return to normal we review the experience of watching live theatre onscreen.

YouTube   Autumn  2020

I have to begin my review of this 1980s West End Musical with the single worst thing about it.

Although originally recorded for the noncommercial BBC, it has been posted on YouTube by a company that has inserted ad breaks every seven minutes, without regard for context. There are sudden adverts in the middle of dramatic moments, in the middle of songs, in the middle of sentences.

You can abort most of them in the first few seconds, but read what follows with the awareness that you'll have to try to enjoy the show with one hand constantly poised over your mouse or touchpad.

Which is a shame, because this a really fun show. Barnum music by Cy Coleman, lyrics by Michael Stewart, book by Mark Bramble is, like a more recent film, a fanciful celebration of the 19th-century American circus owner, showman and self-publicist Phineas T. Barnum.

It is one of the last Broadway musicals of an era when a show could be conceived and produced (and be financially viable) as a vehicle for a specific star. Cy Coleman (who co-produced) built it around the multi-talented, athletic and immensely personable British ex-pat Jim Dale; and the subsequent London production starred the even-more-remarkable Michael Crawford.

It was near the end of Crawford's West End run that this 1986 recording of a live performance was made for BBC television.

Mark Bramble's book follows, with a not-too-slavish commitment to truth that Barnum would approve, the general outline of Barnum's career from small-time showman through the impresario of midget Tom Thumb, elephant Jumbo and 'Swedish Nightingale' Jenny Lind and on through retirement, 'going straight' and a return to run the world's first three-ring circus (whose descendent finally closed down in 2017).

All is watched over by his loving and occasionally disapproving wife, played here by Eileen Battye, and the nearest thing to serious drama takes the form of an imagined infatuation with Jenny Lind (Christina Collier).

The dominating image of the show is a circus, with a chorus who double as acrobats, tumblers, clowns, trapeze artists and magicians.

Michael Crawford himself doesn't just sing, dance and act. At various moments he tumbles, does magic, juggles, does back flips, bounces on a trampoline, plays a trombone, wears a clown's nose, walks on stilts, swings on a rope and, as a First Act climax, walks a real tightrope.

(Crawford made news several times during the musical's run by injuring himself, and in this recording almost singes his fingers when a fire stunt is mistimed.)

And Michael Crawford does all of these things very well and with an infectious charm that makes this feel like a one-man show even with all the razzle-dazzle of Peter Coe's direction surrounding him.

The Coleman-Stewart songs are serviceable if not much more. Barnum's anthem 'There's A Sucker Born Every Minute' and the romantic ballad 'The Colours Of My Life' stand out though most of the rest are fairly generic and could be out-takes from some other Coleman score. 'Join The Circus' has striking melodic similarities to Coleman's 'I'm A Brass Band' from Sweet Charity.

Eileen Battye gives generous support as Mrs. Barnum without making much impression, Christina Collier makes a valiant attempt to be a Swedish femme fatale as Lind, and Michael Heath keeps things moving along as a ringmaster-cum-narrator.

It is very much Michael Crawford's two hours, and he is worth even the hassle of blocking out all the intrusive adverts.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of  Barnum (1986) 2020