The hills are alive with the sound of comedians trying their luck in musicals. At the Garrick, Ross Noble is the hunchbacked Igor in Young Frankenstein, while Meera Syal is treading the boards at the Piccadilly as Miss Hannigan in Annie. Now at the Menier, Marcus Brigstocke, stand-up and Radio 4 regular, is inviting us to roll up, roll up to see his PT Barnum.
To be blunt, Barnum is in a league of its own in terms of challenge. PT – long-hailed (as the imminent film starring Hugh Jackman declares) as “The Greatest Showman”, the embodiment of American showbiz hucksterism – is the continual centre of attention and has the lion’s share of the evening’s numbers. Alas, it gives me no pleasure to report that the 44-year-old Brigstocke, whose musicals CV begins and ends with Spamalot, gamely dives in at the deep end and belly-flops.
Barnum was first (and last) seen in London in 1981. That premiere at the Palladium starred Michael Crawford, who did pretty much everything bar walk through fire to keep the crowds wowed: he flew through the air, slid down from the ceiling on a rope, and executed one of the toughest show-stoppers in the canon with aplomb: Out There, the Act One closer belted out as our hero advances along a tightrope. Fate wasn’t smiling on the lumbering, ungainly Briggers when it came to that giddy climax at the opening night. “My name is PT Barnum, and miracles are my game”, the comic joshed, grimace-grinning as he tumbled off after a few wobbly steps, halting the song in its tracks.
“What I didn’t say is how many attempts most miracles take – this one’s gonna need two.” A conservative estimate as it proved – he eventually gave up and relied on a humiliating helping hand to enable him to reach Charity his wife (Laura Pitt-Pulford, the very picture of marital patience).
To his credit, Brigstocke has a certain twinkly-eyed charm and winning goofball smile. When he’s interacting with the audience, he’s fine, albeit breathless. Yet when the band strikes up he lacks a hawker’s vocal power – it often sounds like he’s politely handing out leaflets not hollering snake-oil salvation.
’Tis the season to be moderately generous, though. Whenever Pitt-Pulford joins the fray, everything relaxes, and there’s meltingly beautiful singing too from Celinde Schoenmaker as the alluring Swedish opera sensation who supplies a sideshow romantic intrigue.
The ensemble hoof with the lightning-fast finesse and deliver the rough and tumble acrobatic goods. This isn’t the greatest show on earth. It’s not even the greatest show in Southwark. But it does offer the chance to run away to the circus for the night. Barn-hmm, then.
Until March 3. Tickets: 020 7378 1713; menierchocolatefactory.com