Barnum – Review

Barnum. Photos by Johan Persson.
Barnum. Photos by Johan Persson.

Barnum is a big, bold, brash spectacle that dazzles your senses and leaves you wanting more – who else could front it but one of the country’s consummate showmen, entertainer Brian Conley?

If ever a man was meant to play a role then this should have had Conley’s name on it right from the beginning.

From the opening bars of Come Follow The Band to the full frontal assault of a finale, Conley leads his three-ringed circus troupe through the hoops, along the high-wire and onto the flying trapeze for a blockbuster of a show.

Barnum is touring the UK for the next year and this week has pitched its tent at the Swan Theatre, High Wycombe.

BARNUM - Brian Conley as 'PT Barnum' and Linzi Hateley as 'Chairy'. Photo by Johan Persson

There’s nothing subtle about this Broadway-quality musical. It is a big budget production that boasts a talented ensemble expert in circus skills, a live band, exuberant choreography and lavish costumes.

The show starts before the audience is completely settled with performers out in the auditorium juggling, balancing precariously on the theatre balconies (this show must be a health and safety nightmare), practising pratfalls and whipping up the excitement.

Gee, it’s almost like going to a real circus.

It starts as it means to go on with Cy Coleman and Michael Stewart’s sensational songs putting you in the mood for a magical night of flim-flam, sleight of hand and humbug.

The irrepressible Conley is there on the stage, juggling, with trademark grin displaying a handsome set of pearly white teeth.

“I’m Phineas T Barnum and you’re going to see every sight, wonder and humbug that name stands for!

“I’m here to amuse and amaze. Barnum’s the name and humbug’s the game.”

He sports a generic gravelly American accent, from no distinct state, and charms the audience in a second with his megawatt charisma.

In a nice flourish Barnum interacts with the audience and, gamely, they go along with the act.

The show desperately needed a big personality and its star has it by the bucketful. No wonder Linzi Hateley’s straight-laced teacher, Chairy, married him.

Barnum is the true story of one of America’s greatest showmen. The remarkable Phineas Taylor Barnum (1810-1891) bamboozled the public with a series of hoaxes.

Barnum. Photos by Johan Persson.
Barnum. Photos by Johan Persson.

The show’s set pieces are stunning. Andrew Wright’s inspired dance routines compliment the larger-than-life songs. One Brick At A Time, Black And White and Join The Circus are spectacular.

Little Mikey Jay-Heath may not be 24 inches tall but his one-song cameo as General Tom Thumb was mightily impressive.

So too was the guest appearance of “Jumbo” (me’thinks Mr Barnum isn’t the only expert in flim-flam).

The most impressive moments came when Conley displayed his own skills as a circus performer.

He has jumped through hoops for this show. If walking a high-wire, eight feet off the ground wasn’t enough, he juggles, walks on stilts, eats fire and shows off a remarkable talent for magic.

Barnum is energetic, colourful, infectious and glorious. Too over the top for you? Just buy a ticket and tell me I’m wrong.

Running at Wycombe Swan until Saturday. For more tour dates go to

To read an interview with Brian Conley go to

Leave a Reply