Oct 24 2014 | By More

Brian Conley on walking the Barnum tightrope

Barnum, the musical based on the 19th-century circus entrepreneur and self-styled “greatest showman on earth”, hits the Playhouse stage next week.

Taking on the title role is another showman, Brian Conley. It is a role which won its original Broadway star Jim Dale a Tony for best actor in a musical in 1980 and Michael Crawford his first Olivier when he originated it in the show’s West End premiere.

Brian Conley as PT Barnum. Photo: Seamus Ryan

Brian Conley as PT Barnum. Photo: Seamus Ryan

Conley might be best known from the TV but he got his own Olivier nomination, in 1996, for the title role in the musical Jolson. He was Professor Harold Hill in The Music Man at Chichester and took turns as the capacious, warm-hearted Edna Turnblad in Hairspray during its West End run. He was most recently seen at the Playhouse as Fagin in the tour of Oliver!.

Barnum is a show which Conley has known for a while, as he told Matt Wolf, London theatre critic for the International New York Times, from whose syndicated interview these quotes are taken.

“I saw Michael Crawford do it originally in the West End,” says Conley. “It’s a show that I’ve always admired, just as I’ve admired everyone that has taken on the role. So now to be asked by Cameron Mackintosh to have a go myself is a wonderful honour. I saw this production in Chichester and just loved it.”

The role of Barnum requires a showy performer. But if it can be generous to those who get it right, it is a demanding one too. Crawford had to go to Circus School to prepare for the ambitious stunts: learning to walk the tightrope, juggle and slide down a rope.

‘What am I doing here?’

Now Conley has been going through his own rigorous training. He started training for this year’s tour before Christmas last year, going to circus school twice a week, followed by five weeks of rehearsals. One of the big challenges is having to walk a tightrope.

“It’s one of the obstacles the show poses and I did find myself thinking initially when I was on the tightrope, ‘What am I doing here?’ I’m not afraid of hard work, whether in this or any show. I do eventually cross the wire, not always on the first attempt but that’s what makes it so exciting, the whole audience appreciate that I’m not a professional tight rope walker.

Barnum company.  Photo: Johan Persson

Barnum company. Photo: Johan Persson

“I broke my finger doing the tightrope a few months ago now and that was when I was all of one foot off the ground. I also sprained my ankle pretty badly on the second day of rehearsals when I was on the wire at its full height which is eight foot of the ground.  I think you can say that I’m afraid of falling but not afraid of height.”

With book by Mark Bramble, lyrics by Michael Stewart and music by Cy Coleman, the production follows Phineas T Barnum as he lights up the world with the colour, warmth and excitement of his imagination and finally teams up with J A Bailey to create Barnum and Bailey’s Circus – the Greatest Show on Earth.

For Conley, the character exists on a spectrum of comparable stage roles he has taken on over the years.

“I played Professor Harold Hill in The Music Man in Chichester in 2008 and he’s a similar type of con man character, and Al Jolson in his own way was a hugely driven man whom you grew to love. In each case, you’ve got to play these roles without malice but with energy and charm.

“What I’m hoping I bring to Barnum is a real contact with the audience where we play off and talk to them and keep them engaged. It’s important whatever you’re performing to be visually interesting so you don’t just stand there and waffle on.”

She made Barnum’s dreams come true

The show looks at the life of the legendary showman through his marriage to Chairy (played on the tour by Mamma Mia!, Joseph and Carrie star Linzi Hateley) and reveals a couple who looked at the world from opposite sides of the spectrum. It also reveals that she was the practical one who made Barnum’s dreams come true.

Brian Conley as 'PT Barnum' and Linzi Hateley as 'Chairy'. Photo by Johan Persson

Linzi Hateley and Brian Conley. Photo: Johan Persson

This touring production is based on the 2013 Chichester production, which had originally been set to go to the West End. That transfer never happened, however, and the current production has been tweeked in its own ways.

“For one thing, we’ve restored So Little Time, which was dropped originally from the show,” Conley reveals. “When I heard it, I said, ‘We’ve got to put it in.’ [The number] is about how much he loves his wife Charity, or Chairy, and about how much he regrets never saying ‘I love you’ as much as he should have and cuddled her more. It’s the most beautiful song.”

While Conley is clearly up to the vocal requirements of the role – Jolson had 26 numbers and the Londoner toured it successfully to North America without getting taken to task for his accent – it is entirely appropriate that it is the performer in him which appears to relish this high-walking, physically demanding role.

“When I’m on stage I feel very much as if that is where I belong,” he says. “My commitment to taking an audience somewhere is important to me: being live on stage feels like home to me, and I always say that I was born to do it.”

Edinburgh Playhouse, 18 – 22 Greenside Place, Edinburgh, EH1 3AA
Tuesday 28 October – Saturday 1 November 2014
Daily 7.30pm; Weds, Thurs, Sat: 2.30pm.
Full details and tickets on the Playhouse website:


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