Following its lavish staging in a purpose-built tent in Chichester last summer, the classic circus musical Barnum returns for a UK tour starring Brian Conley and Linzi Hately. Seeing it again in the traditional surroundings of a large proscenium arch theatre (the lovely Bristol Hippodrome, its second tour venue), I was reminded just how much that Chichester venue added to the atmosphere and enjoyment of this tale of the greatest showman in the world. At times, it felt that Andrew Wright’s inventive choreography – which was given full flight in Chichester especially during the ‘Black and White’ sequence and the earlier building block sequence – was stilted by the comparative lack of space in its new surroundings, an inevitable downside to giving the show a further crack of the whip a year later I suppose. However, in this further refocussed version of Barnum (producer Cameron Mackintosh and original book writer Mark Bramble had already updated it for Chichester), there is much clearer focus and emphasis on Barnum’s story and continuity of scenes than ever before.

As Phineas and Chairy Barnum, Conley and Hately have a great rapport, and make the relationship believable and real – it’s now the backbone to the show. Conley is ideal casting in the lead role of Barnum – he is, of course, the ultimate showman himself, and there’s a thin line between the man himself and his character. Talking of thin lines, he gets to walk the tightrope (although it was a case of second time lucky on the night I attended, but this was passed off wittily as part of the show) and his confidence to sing as he walks across it will no doubt increase as the run progresses. Conley is a charming and loveable character – as colourful as the costumes in this show – and has the perfect match in Hately’s bubbly and grounded Chairy, Barnum’s long-suffering ‘rock’ of a wife, who manages to guide him through life at the toss of a coin.

A major strength of Barnum is Cy Coleman’s  catchy and hummable score, with the energetic ‘Come Follow The Band’ and Barnum’s theme-tune ‘There’s a Sucker Born Every Minute’ just two of a number of standout songs, played by an energetic onstage band. There’s a great deal of entertainment too in the characters that Barnum finds to appear as acts in his show in order to gain the biggest audience possible. Landi Oshinowo as the ‘world’s oldest woman’ Joice Heth’ (“George Washington’s nurse!”), Mikey Jay-Heath as Tom Thumb in a stilts sequence, and Kimberly Blake as the young blond soprano Jenny Lind – who briefly attracts Barnum’s attention – all get a moment to shine before rejoining a hard-working ensemble who are performing tricks in the auditorium before the show even begins and add plenty of energy, magic and colour throughout. All in all, it makes for a fabulous evening’s entertainment.