REVIEW: Barnum, Theatre in the Park, Chichester, until August 31

The more you think about it, the more remarkable the CFT’s temporary new theatre gets.

Like some giant spacecraft, it has landed in Oaklands Park, but step inside, and once the lights go down, it’s like you’re back in the old main-house auditorium.

The CFT promised an exhilarating mix of state-of-the-art and completely-familiar, and they have delivered – spectacularly so in an interim venue which leaves you wondering just how much more wonderful the revamped main-house theatre will be when we get back to it next year.

Theatre in the Park, so comfortable, so fresh and so welcoming, has set the bar remarkably high.

The problem for the CFT, however, is that the venue will probably prove more memorable than the show which has inaugurated it, a reworked Barnum which carries plenty of conviction but hasn’t quite got the X factor it needs to match the magic of its very own big top

The show has clearly come a long way since last week’s much-muttered-about previews.

But even now, even with no one putting a foot wrong, it’s a show it’s far too easy to drift into and out of, rather than a show which sucks you in and won’t let you go.

Maybe, the expectations are simply too high; maybe Christopher Fitzgerald as Phineas T Barnum, America’s Greatest Showman, hasn’t quite got the magnetism to carry the title. His is a fine performance, but it’s not a performance which will sweep you off your feet.

Consequently, Barnum remains a spectacle. You look at it and you are impressed; but it’s difficult to feel involved until a brief circus flourish towards the end – and then it’s gone.

The episodic nature of the tale doesn’t help, a succession of freaks, fakes and performers who are introduced and are then dropped.

At the show’s heart is Barnum’s relationship with his long-suffering wife, beautifully played by Tamsin Carroll. But time and again, you sense – if you’re off centre – the extent to which director Timothy Sheader hasn’t catered for those not sitting directly front on to the stage.

The songs are snappily delivered and choreographed, but too few of them are memorable; and the little trick with the body-less jacket and the headless hat rapidly wears very thin. Again, maybe it works it you are facing straight on; if you’re not, the fact is that it simply doesn’t work.

But the first night still brought an ecstatic response. Maybe it either grabs you or it doesn’t. An astonishing amount of work has gone into it, and there’s no doubting the skill or the energy. But The Music Man this isn’t. Even with this reworking, Barnum doesn’t truly persuade that here’s a lost gem that the world has been mad to overlook for so long – even if it does give us a glimpse of the world’s biggest elephant.

Phil Hewitt