Where else but Chichester could you see the classic circus musical Barnum staged as a lavish spectacle in a grand circus tent? As the major RENEW project continues apace at Chichester’s main Festival Theatre with a scheduled opening date of June 2014, the large green space around the theatre has been miraculously turned into a ‘Theatre in the Park’. This is accessed via a 175m long wooden path (with buggies transporting those less able to walk that distance) and contains a generous bar space.  At its centre is a massive tent containing an auditorium modelled on the interior of the Festival Theatre (with air-con and the same seat numbers!), with a semi-circular stage and a roof carrying some 24 tonnes of equipment. Is there a more atmospheric place to be at dusk on a warm summers evening?

Barnum was the world’s greatest showman, a master of hype who became America’s second millionaire by staging and promoting the outrageous, and following the American dream. We meet Joice Heth (the charismatic Aretha Ayeh) – the ‘world’s oldest woman’ and Tom Thumb (Jack North, in a lovely sequence where the rest of the cast are on stilts looking down on him),  and the action takes place between 1835 and 1880 all over America and the major capitals of the world. The musical, with a revised book by original author Mark Bramble and the show’s co-producer Cameron Mackintosh, is structured rather like the circus that Barnum eventually creates – it’s a series of snapshot scenes and acts. This episodic structure works due to the strength of the material and the performances, not least of all the American actor Christopher Fitzgerald as Phineas T Barnum himself. Fitzgerald shows the human side to Barnum rather than merely the razzamatazz, in a performance of great charm and joy that wins audience support from the off (and he walks the tightrope with panache!). And Tamsin Carroll is the ideal foil as Chairy, his determined wife, a realist who nevertheless allows him to indulge his ambition, even when Barnum gets dangerously close to the young blond soprano Jenny Lind (the entrancing Anna O’Byrne, in fine voice).    

Timothy Sheader and Liam Steele’s production is full of wonderment, magic and colour, and there is a beautiful style and cohesion of movement throughout, with the hard working ensemble creating some stunning effects (choreography is shared by Steele and Andrew Wright). The set pieces – including ‘One Brick at a Time’, ‘There’s a Sucker Born Every Minute’ and ‘Come Follow the Band’ – are done with zest and energy and a freshness that makes them a joy to watch. The set (Scott Park) and costumes (Paul Wills) are expensively lavish too, with an inventive evocation of an elephant (!) and a beautiful ‘Black and White’ sequence reminiscent of the Ascot scene in My Fair Lady. The auditorium exploded in energy and vitality in a magnificent finale, with some of the cast swirling around at alarming speed, high up on ropes. The old showman Barnum would surely have loved every minute.