Review; BARNUM Liverpool Empire.
Byline: CATHERINE JONES
ROLL up, roll up!
While it may not be the greatest show on earth - although it's still pretty darned good - this Cameron Mackintosh production of Barnum can surely lay claim to be the boldest and brightest on the current UK touring circuit.
There are acrobats, hoop spinners, jugglers and trapeze artists, a honkytonk piano and brassy band, giant elephant and tumbling General Tom Thumb, the oldest lady in the world and a late appearance from a bloke called Bailey.
And, in the midst of the razzle-dazzle is Brian Conley, who proves a natural fit as PT Barnum, the irrepressible showman whose greatest delight was to "humbug" his audience - whether it be the punters drawn to his shows or his long-suffering wife Chairy (Linzi Hateley).
Conley, of course, is also a natural when it comes to engaging with an audience, raising a cheeky eyebrow here and flashing a conspiratorial grin there as he breaks the fourth wall to draw the auditorium into the showbiz shenanigans on stage.
He certainly had the measure of the Liverpool crowd, which has been known to discombobulate a lesser performer, dealing deftly and humorously with unexpected comebacks (yes, you know who you are, Jeff from St Helens).
But while he wears the coat of the bombastic showman with ease, he can also do pathos and emotion when required.
The first half of Barnum is light on plot but big on pizzazz, while after the interval the story is meatier but the razzle-dazzle more muted. And there are few hummable tunes throughout the show, save for perhaps Come Follow the Band. But it's handsomely staged - with wrought-iron staircases, drapes of fabric and even its own pros arch.
Under director Jean-Pierre van der Spuy, and choreographer Andrew Wright, the numbers are energetic and snappy - One Brick at a Time stands out while Barnum's patter song is impressively delivered, and the circus skills and acrobatics are well-honed and look effortless.
Conley, too, is no slouch when it comes to circus skills.
You might almost miss his fire-eating in the melee of the grand finale, but you can't miss his performance on the tightwire just ahead of the interval, when Barnum crosses both a physical and metaphorical chasm.
Hateley, meanwhile, is a calming, warm-hearted presence in the eye of the frenetic Barnum storm, while Georgie Ashford's Garbo-esque Jenny Lind proves an icy foil.
And here's a tip - don't dally in the bar before the show or you'll miss the cast's circus skills at close quarters.
The impressive cast of Barnum in full acrobatic mode on stage | Picture: JOHAN PERSSON