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 Connecting professional and amateur theatre in Newbury, West Berkshire and beyond

Watermill Theatre

Box office

01635 46044.

The Watermill Theatre, Bagnor, Newbury, RG20 8AE.


Reviews of Barnum

2nd July to 8th September 2024

Review from The Times.

Roll up for great entertainment (and a cameo elephant)

The fun is hard to resist

four stars
Showman, charlatan or both? That is the gist of Cy Coleman and Mark Bramble’s genial and zesty musical about PT Barnum, the 19th-century American circus impresario. After its Broadway premiere in 1980, Barnum landed in the West End the following year.

Both (British) actors who played the title role earned top honours for their performances — Jim Dale netting a Tony in New York and Michael Crawford an Olivier in London. Little wonder, given the razzle-dazzle nature of the part (taken by Hugh Jackman in The Greatest Showman) and, indeed, the show itself.

Bramble’s book is a light and perhaps inevitably fairly shallow trot through Barnum’s life and career, pinned to the wily man’s hyperbolic dreams and schemes. The self-designated “Prince of Humbug” was a master of spin responsible for promoting such showbiz shams as “the oldest woman on earth’’, reputedly aged 160.

Other and even more famous money-spinning attractions included “General Tom Thumb”, just under three feet tall and recruited by Barnum as a four-year-old, and the opera singer Jenny Lind, billed as “The Swedish Nightingale”. Both feature here, along with a cameo appearance by Jumbo the Elephant — but, amusingly, only the animal’s trunk.

Barnum may not be a great musical, but, as Jonathan O’Boyle’s high-spirited revival at the tiny and charming Watermill Theatre demonstrates, it is an engaging piece of entertainment. Coleman’s upbeat, aptly oompah-style music neatly dovetails with Michael Stewart’s quick-witted lyrics.

A couple of persuasive love ballads give expression to Barnum’s long marriage to Charity Barnum, deftly embodied by Monique Young as tartly no-nonsense yet resolutely loyal, as well as his dalliance with Lind (the witty, piercingly clear-voiced Penny Ashmore). Does it matter that a glancing nod at Barnum’s political ambitions in Act II doesn’t go very far, or deep? It still yields yet another lively, satirically vaudevillian production number.

Barnum brims with energy, much emanating from an 18-strong and multitalented cast of actor-singers, musicians and circus artistes. The triumphant centre of it all is Matt Rawle’s Barnum, who with his chiselled features, killer smile and nimble physicality positively oozes the huckster’s charisma.

Kudos also to Lee Newby’s bright, colourful designs and the seamless movement direction shared between Strictly Come Dancing’s Oti Mabuse, as choreographer, and Amy Panter, overseeing the circus skills. It all adds up to impressive fun.


Review from The Guardian.

Roll up for some old-world big top magic

three stars
The circus begins outside with fire-eating, juggling and a coconut shy in the Watermill’s gardens. It is wondrous scene-setting for composer Cy Coleman and lyricist Michael Stewart’s 1980 musical about the American impresario and canny businessman PT Barnum, who pitched his 19th-century travelling circus as the “Greatest Show on Earth”.

Jonathan O’Boyle’s production exudes old-world magic and the infectious showtunes, surprisingly, do not sound overwhelming in this tight auditorium. There are stunning acrobatics and aerial work (especially by Emily Odunsi), with Amy Panter as circus director, while the dancing, choreographed by Strictly Come Dancing’s Oti Mabuse, comes into its own in the second half.

Thrilling high notes are hit by Penny Ashmore as the Swedish soprano Jenny Lind who Barnum takes on (in more ways than one). There is astonishing musicality all round, from accordions to triangles, culminating in a brass band marching on. With Lee Newby’s exquisite costumes – including the acrobats’ period outfits and the Pierrots – it manifests the idea of circus as a showcase for the furthest reaches of human imagination and capability.

Newby’s set never looks crammed despite the fleet of dancers, acrobats and actor-musicians (with two pianos wheeled on at one point). While Barnum’s enchanting circus becomes the emotional centre of the show, the story itself is slow to emerge and skimpy when it does, with Mark Bramble’s book leaving too many gaps.

Although we are told Barnum is the king of “humbug” – sweet talking, deception, lies – he seems an exemplar of the frontier spirit, a forerunner of Herbert Hoover’s 20th-century rugged individualism, and the musical never places him in anything other than a lovable light. There is a patina of personal revelation, with Barnum (Matt Rawle) telling us his story, but the focus is on his accomplishments. It skirts over his infidelity, his controversial foray into politics and the death of his wife, Charity (Monique Young). It is dated, too, with its menagerie of performing animals and circus “novelties” such as a boy with dwarfism. This does not jar, in its context, but feels forgivingly glossed over.

Still, this is an immensely beguiling production with immaculate performances that work magic.


Review from Newbury Theatre.

Before the show (and British summer weather permitting) there are various circus activities going on in the Watermill gardens, including fire breathing, juggling and gymnastics. When we get into the theatre, there are four trapeze artists on stage doing amazing things with their bodies on two trapezes and a huge suspended ring. They also appear at various times during the show; respect and top marks to Emily Odunsi, Kiera Brunton, Dan Holland and André Rodrigues, and circus director Amy Panter.

PT Barnum (Matt Rawle) walks among the seated audience and bursts into an energetic and commanding performance from the start. Barnum is a shyster and specialises in humbug, getting his audience to believe the unbelievable – that his company includes a mermaid and the oldest woman in the world (160) – but his engaging personality lets him get away with it. A tour de force from Rawle. His long-suffering wife Charity (Monique Young) puts up with him and offsets his exuberance with common sense and reason. They bicker and row, but Charity is the sensible one who gets things done.

At the early stages of his career, he runs a freak show, not a circus, and it’s not until he reaches 60 that he teams up (reluctantly at first) with James Bailey (Josh Barnett, who also plays the ringmaster) to form the world famous Barnum and Bailey’s circus, ‘the greatest show on earth’).

This is a musical, with the Watermill’s traditional actor musicians. The cast of 18 can fill the stage with the ensemble numbers, but excellent choreography from Oti Mabuse makes it seem effortless. Alongside the usual instruments, there’s an enormous sousaphone and a portable harp. The music itself is up-tempo with some catchy tunes, although it was hard to hear some of the lyrics clearly. Notable among the singers were Penny Ashmore as Jenny Lind, the Swedish operatic soprano signed up by Barnum to do concert tours in America with a musical repertoire more suited to the American audience, and Tania Mathurn with a lovely mellow voice.

The company maintained a cracking pace under the skilful direction of Jonathan O’Boyle. There were no weak links in this talented cast, which included Elena Bluck in her first professional role.

It’s brash, loud, energetic and you won’t fall asleep. A high-octane production.


Review from the Newbury Weekly News and the British Teatre Guide.

Roll up for some old-world big top magic

Roll up! Roll up! the circus is in town and the Watermill’s production of Barnum is an absolutely thrilling treat. It all begins in the Bagnor theatre’s delightful gardens, with a circus ring festooned by fairy lights creating a magical atmosphere. There are also stalls selling hot dogs and popcorn, with circus music playing in the background.

On this night, the inclement weather forced the pre-show fun to be curtailed, but there were jugglers and musicians who led us into the auditorium... and what a visual delight awaited us. Lee Newby’s design created a circus ring complete with red and white stripes and stars and three trapezists ‘warming up’ high above the stage.

PT Barnum has a dream of becoming the greatest showman on Earth and is outstandingly played by Matt Rawle with energy, sparkle and charisma. Barnum was really a conman and an expert in the “noble art of humbug” as the opening number There is a SuckerBorn Every Minute expounds.

His loving wife Charity, delightfully played by Monique Young, is the perfect foil to providing a steadying influence on Barnum as his wild ideas of creating a museum filled with oddities becomes a reality.

The immensely talented 18-strong cast not only act and perform amazing circus skills, but also play umpteen musical instruments including a sousaphone under the musical direction of Josh Barnett. He brings Cy Coleman’s music with lyrics by Michael Stewart vibrantly to life and also plays a dashing ringmaster.

Life becomes more complicated when Barnum brings Jenny Lind to perform. Penny Ashmore has a soaring soprano voice and accompanies herself on the Welsh harp but this love triangle between the Barnums and her creates tension.

Closing act one Rawle crosses the stage on a high tightrope, a heart in your mouth moment, which received tremendous applause as he successfully reached the end.

Come Follow the Band is the rousing big band number that starts act two and it’s a dazzling showbiz triumph.

With inventive direction by Johnathan O’Boyle and skilful, energetic choreography by Oti Mabuse of BBC Strictly fame, this production leaves you wanting more.

Not to be missed!


There are reviews from Broadway World ("dazzling production... an all-round talented cast" ★★★★); West End Best Friend ("a visual spectacle of circus, choreography and colour... astoundingly talented actor-musicians... a show that is a joy to be engulfed in" ★★★★★); ("a big bold production... a fun night out and certainly another hit" ★★★★); WhatsOnStage ("an unmissable production" ★★★★★); All That Dazzles ("a visual spectacular... visually thrilling and bundles of fun... fabulous production" ★★★★); Theatre Vibe ("a superb show for all the family... five stars from Theatrevibe, the site that doesn’t do stars!"); Marlborough News ("spectacular entertainment"), Musical Theatre Review ("the Watermill goes all out in this immersive show... this year’s summer production has pushed the boundaries yet again" ★★★★★), Theatre and Art Reviews ("a fabulous achievement all round" ★★★★), The Stage ("pithy whistle-stop take on the showman's life... a triumph of charm, ambition and ingenuity" ★★★★).

Reviews in the Archive

Fanny (May 2024)
Much Ado About Nothing (April 2024)
Sherlock Holmes and the Poison Wood (February 2024)
The Wizard of Oz (November 2023)
Macbeth (October 2023)
The Lord of the Rings (July 2023)
Mansfield Park (June 2023)
The Suspicions of Mr Whicher (May 2023)
Visitors (March 2023)
Notes from a Small Island (February 2023)
Rapunzel (November 2022)
The Sleeping Sword (October 2022)
Othello (September 2022)
Whistle Down the Wind (July 2022)
Camp Albion (July 2022)
Bleak Expectations (May 2022)
Our Man in Havana (April 2022)
Spike (January 2022)
The Wicker Husband (March 2022)
The Jungle Book (November 2021)
Brief Encounter (October 2021)
Just So (July 2021)
As You Like It (June 2021)
The Hound of the Baskervilles (May and August 2021)
A Christmas Carol (December 2020)
Lone Flyer (October 2020)
Bloodshot (September 2020)
Camelot (August 2020)
The Hound of the Baskervilles (July 2020)
The Wicker Husband (March 2020)
The Prince and the Pauper (November 2019)
A Midsummer Night’s Dream (February 2020)
One Million Tiny Plays About Britain (February 2020)
Assassins (September 2019)
Kiss Me, Kate (July 2019)
Our Church (June 2019)
The Importance of Being Earnest (May 2019)
Amélie (April 2019)
Macbeth (February 2019)
Robin Hood (November 2018)
Murder For Two (January 2019)
Jane Eyre (October 2018)
Trial by Laughter (September 2018)
Sweet Charity (July 2018)
Jerusalem (June 2018)
A Midsummer Night’s Dream (May 2018)
Burke and Hare (April 2018 and on tour)
Digging For Victory Senior Youth Theatre (March 2018)
The Rivals (March 2018)
Teddy (January 2018)
The Borrowers (November 2017)
Under Milk Wood (October 2017)
Loot (September 2017)
The Picture of Dorian Gray (September 2017 and on tour)
A Little Night Music (July 2017)
All at Sea! (July 2017)
The Miller's Child (July 2017)
Nesting (July 2017 and on tour)
House and Garden (May 2017)
See Newbury Dramatic Society for a review of Maskerade (May 2016)
Twelfth Night (April 2017)
Faust x2 (March 2017)
Murder For Two (January 2017)
Sleeping Beauty (November 2016)
Frankenstein (October 2016)
The Wipers Times (September 2016)
Crazy For You (July 2016)
Watership Down (June 2016)
Untold Stories (May 2016)
See the Box Theatre Company review of The Sea (April 2016)
One Million Tiny Plays About Britain (April 2016 and on tour)
Romeo and Juliet (February 2016)
Tell Me on a Sunday (January 2016)
Alice in Wonderland (November 2015)
Gormenghast (November 2015) - see the Youth page
The Ladykillers (September 2015)
Oliver! (July 2015)
A Little History of the World (July 2015 and on tour)
Between the Lines (July 2015)
The Deep Blue Sea (June 2015)
Far From the Madding Crowd (April 2015)
Tuxedo Junction (March 2015)
The Secret Adversary (February 2015)
Peter Pan (November 2014)
But First This (October 2014)
Twelfth Night (November 2014) - see the Youth page
Journey's End (September 2014)
Calamity Jane (July 2014)
The Boxford Masques - Joe Soap's Masquerade (July 2014)
Hardboiled - the Fall of Sam Shadow (July 2014)
A Bunch of Amateurs (May 2014)
See the Box Theatre Company review of The Canterbury Tales (May 2014)
Sense and Sensibility (April 2014)
Life Lessons (March 2014)
All My Sons (February 2014)
The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea (January 2014)
Pinocchio (November 2013)
Sherlock's Last Case (September 2013)
Romeo+Juliet (September 2013 and on tour)
The Witches of Eastwick (July 2013)
Laurel & Hardy (June 2013)
The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (May 2013)
The Miser (April 2013)
David Copperfield (March 2013)
Sleuth (February 2013)
Arabian Nights (November 2012)
The Tempest (September 2012)
Thoroughly Modern Millie (August 2012)
Boxford Masques (July 2012)
Ben Hur (June 2012)
Of Mice and Men (May 2012)
Love on the Tracks (April 2012 and on tour)
Henry V and The Winter's Tale (April 2012)
Lettice and Lovage (February 2012)
The Wind in the Willows (November 2011)
Some Like It Hotter (November 2011 and on tour)
Great Expectations (September 2011)
Radio Times (August 2011)
The Marriage of Figaro (July 2011)
Moonlight and Magnolias (May 2011)
Richard III and The Comedy of Errors (April 2011)
The Clodly Light Opera and Drama Society (March 2011)
Relatively Speaking (February 2011)
Treasure Island (November 2010)
Single Spies (September 2010)
Copacabana (July 2010)
Daisy Pulls It Off (June 2010)
Brontë (April 2010)
Raising Voices (March 2010)
Confused Love (March 2010)
Heroes (February 2010)
James and the Giant Peach (November 2009)
Educating Rita (October 2009)
Spend Spend Spend! (July 2009 and September 2010)
Blithe Spirit (May 2009)
Bubbles (April to May and September to October 2009)
A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Merchant of Venice (March 2009)
Life X 3 (January 2009)
Matilda and Duffy's Stupendous Space Adventure (November 2008)
The Sirens' Call (November 2008)
Our Country's Good (September 2008)
See Newbury Dramatic Society for a review of The Recruiting Officer (October 2008)
Sunset Boulevard (July 2008)
Boxford Masques - Knight and Day (July 2008)
Black Comedy and The Bowmans (May 2008)
London Assurance (April 2008)
Micky Salberg's Crystal Ballroom Dance Band (April 2008 and on tour)
Great West Road (March 2008)
Merrily We Roll Along (March 2008)
Honk! (November 2007)
Rope (September 2007)
Martin Guerre (July 2007)
Twelfth Night (June 2007)
The Story of a Great Lady (April and September 2007, and on tour)
The Rise and Fall of Little Voice (April 2007)
For Services Rendered (March 2007)
Plunder (January 2007)
The Snow Queen (November 2006)
Peter Pan in Scarlet (October 2006)
The Taming of the Shrew (September 2006 and on tour in 2007)
Hot Mikado (July 2006 and September 2009)
Boxford Masques: The Crowning of the Year (July 2006)
Hobson's Choice (May 2006)
Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea (April 2006)
Tartuffe (February 2006)
The Jungle Book (November 2005)
The Gilded Lilies (October 2005)
Copenhagen (September 2005)
The Garden of Llangoed (September 2005 and September 2006)
Thieves' Carnival (July 2005)
The Shed (July 2005)
Mack and Mabel (May 2005)
The Odyssey (May 2005)
Broken Glass (April 2005)
The Winter's Tale (January 2005)
Arabian Nights (December 2004)
See Newbury Dramatic Society for a review of Whose Life is it Anyway? (November 2004)
Multiplex (November 2004)
Neville's Island (September 2004)
The Comedian (September 2004 and March 2005)
Raising Voices Again (September 2004)
Pinafore Swing (July 2004)
The Venetian Twins (May 2004)
The Gentleman from Olmedo (April 2004)
Mr & Mrs Schultz (March 2004 and on tour)
Sweeney Todd (February 2004)
The Emperor and the Nightingale (November 2003)
See Newbury Dramatic Society for a review of An Ideal Husband (November 2003)
A Star Danced (September 2003)
The Fourth Fold (September 2003)
The Last Days of the Empire (July 2003)
Accelerate (July 2003)
Dreams from a Summer House (May 2003)
The Triumph of Love (April 2003)
Gigolo (March 2003)
Raising Voices (March 2003)
A Midsummer Night's Dream (February 2003)
The Firebird (November 2002)
Ten Cents a Dance (September 2002)
Dancing at Lughnasa (July 2002)
Love in a Maze (June 2002)
Fiddler on the Roof (April 2002)
I Dreamt I Dwelt in Marble Halls (March 2002 and March 2006)
Only a Matter of Time (February 2002)
Cinderella and the Enchanted Slipper (November 2001)
Piaf (October 2001)
The Merchant of Venice (October 2001)
Witch (September 2001)
The Clandestine Marriage (August 2001)
The Importance of Being Earnest (May 2001)
Gondoliers (March 2001)
Rose Rage (February 2001)
Carmen (July 2000)