Tag Archives: Brian Conley

The Circus of Life


Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Thursday 29th January, 2015

Coleman and Stewart’s 1980 musical is back on the road, given the kind of treatment you might expect of a Kander & Ebb.   Stylised staging suggests the circus ring – the arena in which events in the life of showman Phineas T Barnum will take place. A chorus of supple and talented performers display impressive circus skills – they sing well and dance well; it’s good to see a company of this size touring the provinces. Their energy is infectious.

But I’m afraid the show doesn’t pack the punch it thinks it does. With very few characters, it boils down to a portrait of Barnum’s marriage, including an affair with Swedish nightingale, Jenny Lind. For me, the style of presentation keeps me at too much of a distance to care much at all.

There is nothing I can say against the performers. British showman Brian Conley is a perfect fit as the eponymous American showman. His own personality comes through – especially when interacting with the audience. “It’s a puppet,” some wag shouts as soon as Conley appears. “Not tonight,” he drawls. He is completely in control – and if force of personality were not enough, he has acquired a range of skills hitherto unseen: he conjures flowers, he eats fire and so on. He walks a tightrope, literally and metaphorically, between his wife and his mistress.

As the long-suffering but eminently supportive Mrs B, Linzi Hateley is a sweet and calming influence. I would like more solo numbers for her. She contrasts nicely with the ethereal, almost glacial Jenny Lind (Kimberley Blake, who sings like a – well, a nightingale, while being hoist aloft on a perch).

Mikey Jay-Heath is an effervescent Tom Thumb with a firecracker of a musical number, lighting up the stage with razzle dazzle; clever staging plays around with scale most effectively. Similarly, Landi Oshinowo makes her mark as the world’s oldest woman Joice Heth, before appearing as a blues singer, giving the action emotion that perhaps isn’t already present.

It’s a likeable production of a so-so musical. It’s the pizazz and razzamatazz that you enjoy. Like Barnum’s attractions themselves, when you see it for what it is, it’s a humbug. It’s like opening the most fancily wrapped present to find the wrapping is more attractive than the gift.


Robinson Squashed


Birmingham Hippodrome, Tuesday 18th December, 2012


If you were on the quiz show Pointless and asked to list traditional pantomimes, I’d wager that Robinson Crusoe would not spring immediately to mind, but here it is.  It was in fact refined and panto-ised by the king of pantomime scripts, the late great John Morley many, many moons ago, bringing in elements of Dick Whittington (the shipwreck) and Aladdin (the baddie needs something from the hero in order to reach some hidden treasure).  This latest mutation emphasises the pirates Morley introduced, no doubt to cash in on a recent popular film franchise.  It deffo ain’t Defoe.

None of this matters with this production.  The story is incidental, amounting to nothing more than some loosely linked scenes.  If you try to follow what’s going on, you lose the plot very quickly.  This production is all about its big star, Brian Conley, an irrepressible force of showbiz who appropriates pantomime as a showcase for his talents.  He appears as the eponymous Crusoe, acknowledging from the start in a hilarious video sequence the similarities to the Buttons he gave us in this venue last year.  His crooning is interrupted by a tumble off-stage into the pit – This is this year’s fad, evidently.  Conley is a very watchable, amusing entertainer and no expense has been spared, it seems, to support his shtick.  Corny jokes are amplified by specially-made props, and there are some theatrical effects (Conley is shrunk in a magician’s cabinet, and carried in a cage by a gorilla) that are delightful.

He is matched in stage presence by Lesley Joseph in the good fairy role, the Enchantress of the Sea.  When they appear together, it is clear they are enjoying themselves immensely.  Joseph brings the right amount of camp diva to proceedings.

Audience participation is taken to a new level.  Conley wheels on a TV camera and turns it on the crowd.  Suddenly punters’ faces are projected large on a screen.  He singles out a man to insult.  It made me squirm in a relieved-it’s-not-me way and reminded me of a show I saw earlier this year that consisted of little more than this kind of abuse.  Later a woman is brought on stage to join in with a dance number – you guessed it, Gangnam Style, this year’s Japanese knotweed of a song.   It’s good-natured cheekiness rather than any aim to offend – that is how Conley operates.  I didn’t like a couple of throwaway lines that are out of place in a show like this. More palatable is the moment when Conley interacts with children, for the sing-along number, confirming him as an all-round popular entertainer, quick-witted and energetic.

Gavin Woods impresses as the villain of the piece, battling to stay in character as Blackheart the pirate in the face of Conley’s comic capers.  It seems that most of the plot development falls to him; his gloating monologues keep us in touch with what the hell is going on.  Kathryn Rooney as love interest Polly earns her money just by getting half-eaten apple spat on her face every performance.

As ever, the Hippodrome delivers spectacle and wonder on the grandest scale in the country.  There is a scary sea monster and, inexplicably, a flying car.  The set pieces and production numbers dazzle with an extravagance you don’t see in other pantomimes and Conley is correct to acknowledge the hard work of the Hippodrome crew in setting up and running a show of this magnitude.

It struck me that no matter the spectacle, it is the snot and fart jokes and the traditional pantomime routines and patter that work the best.  The prime example of this is Andrew Ryan as the dame, Mrs Crusoe.  Here we have a seasoned and skilled performer who works every line and every bit of business, the perfect complement to Conley’s anarchy.

I think anarchy is the key word.  The show is organised chaos.  Without a familiar plot to keep us anchored in events (compared to that most tightly-plotted of pantos, Cinderella, for example) we don’t know what might happen next but it certainly is great fun finding out in this theme park ride of a show.


A Brush with Greatness

Birmingham Hippodrome, Wednesday 21st December, 2011

The Hippodrome prides itself on staging the country’s biggest and most lavish pantomime in the country and this year is no exception. The production values are astounding in this glitzy show that mixes technical wizardry with star quality.

The big names on the poster this year are: Brian Conley as a moon-walking, water-pistolling, sing-a-long-ing, cheeky-faced Buttons – he works the crowd extremely well and it’s a big room to work; making her panto debut is the glamorous Lynda Bellingham as the Fairy Godmother – she is given plenty to do in what can be an incidental role and her lines are ripe with innuendo; but while Conley is spouting references to Timmy Mallett and the Crazy Frog, the funniest and most up-to-date material comes from Basil Brush! He moves around like a miniature, furry Davros, singing and dancing and interacting with the crowd. The operator in the box must be knackered by the end. Basil Brush is “living” proof that acts who have been around a long time can still appeal, keeping up with the times without changing the essence of what made him great in the first place. Other old-school acts could learn a lot from the little puppet with the posh voice. It is marvellous to see today’s children taking Basil to their hearts just as it is wonderful to see them being enthralled by the magic of theatre and hearing them laughing their little heads off throughout the show.

What you may think are the main characters, Cinderella and Prince Charming, are sidelined somewhat and the plot takes quite a while to get going as Conley and Bellingham dominate proceedings from the outset. This means that minor role, Dandini, is pushed out to become almost irrelevant – the business of swapping identity with the Prince is given lip service but never capitalised on. Ugly sisters, Kelly and Tulisa (Martin Ramsdin and David Robbins) have more muscle (in more than one sense). Their outfits, which I am given to believe were mainly their own design and manufacture, are outlandish and colourful, matched by their rapport and characterisations. The scene in which they force Cinderella to tear up her invitation to the ball remains one of the most dramatic and powerful moments in all panto.

So, the show takes a few detours but when the plot gets going, the Hippodrome does it very well indeed. The transformation scene is fast and flashy, ending the first act with pyrotechnics and a flying horse. The second act is more traditional in its structure; at the ball, Conley performs an outrageously funny routine involving a violin and an errant finger but the Prince and Cinders are allowed their time in the spotlight too. It is very satisfying to see the tried-and-tested routines and stage business played out so well, along with the new ingredients (as long as they don’t subvert the genre or hold up proceedings).

I am uncomfortable with live animals on stage. However enchanting their appearance and antics and no matter how kindly they may be treated, it doesn’t sit well with me to see them performing tricks in a manner outside their natural behaviour. Adults and children alike were entranced but this overly sensitive veggie prefers not to see that kind of thing.

Preferable was Conley’s interaction with kids from the audience who were brought onto the stage for questions and a giggly rendition of Old Macdonald Had A Farm. In fact, interplay with the audience as a whole was very strong. Given the scale of the auditorium, it requires a certain type of performer to keep everyone happy. Conley certainly manages that and it is a shame his kind of act is no longer fashionable in these days of TOWIE and endless dredges for “talent”. Conley needs a vehicle, and I don’t mean Buttons’s flying motorcycle, to get him back on the telly. As long as he steers clear of the schmaltzy crooning, which veers dangerously close to pub-singing, I would tune in.

For me though the evening belonged to Basil Brush. I’m glad to see he’s keeping his hand in.