Roll up, for the greatest show on earth featuring funnyman Brian Conley
- Credit: Archant
'Barnum's the name, P T Barnum, and I want to tell you that tonight, on this stage, you are going to see - bar none - every sight, wonder and miracle that name stands for!'
He has presented his own chat show, starred in the West End and TV sitcoms and his own sell-out comedy tours. Comedian, actor and all-round performer Brian Conley has never been backward in pushing himself forward, which is just as well, as he has now taken on his most demanding role ever — playing the greatest show on earth in the musical Barnum.
Brian, who launched his professional career at the age of 12 and is now 53, has taken the flamboyant, all-singing, all-dancing lead in Cameron Mackintosh smash hit.
Arriving at Norwich Theatre Royal next week for a 12-night run, the show, which tells the story of Phineas T Barnum and his famous circus, even sees Conley take to the high wire — 70ft in the air.
'I think you have to be a showman to play the part of Barnum,' Brian admits. 'He was a showman and I am a showman too.
'This is like nothing I have ever done before; it has been an incredible journey and the biggest challenge I have probably ever faced, mainly because of having to learn how to walk the high wire – and how to fall.'
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He adds: 'I started off weighing about 13st 4lbs and after three months of training, still eating like a pig, I realised I was almost a stone lighter.'
Starting off with small roles in adverts when he was just a child and moving on to become a warm-up man for the likes of Kenny Everett and Terry Wogan, Brian first saw television success with Five Alive and Live from the Palladium. He went on to have his own shows, Brian Conley This Way Up and The Brian Conley Show, and later starred in hit comedy series Time After Time and The Grimleys.
Recently he has presented The National Lottery Live, hosted two series of Let Me Entertain You for the BBC and starred in his own An Audience With, while also building a reputation in the West End. There he took on the part of Caractacus Potts in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, played Edna Turnblad in Hairspray and originated the role of Al Jolson in the Olivier Award-winning Jolson.
One major musical role, as Fagin in Oliver! also saw him spend a few weeks in Norfolk a couple of years ago.
'I have to say Norwich and Norfolk are among my favourite places,' he says. 'I love the Norfolk Broads and I always have an amazing time while I am here.
'Last time I was here Rowan Atkinson came to see me and told me he'd been filming in the area but didn't say what. Then when I was watching the opening ceremony for the Olympics and saw him running along the beach I realised what he had been doing.
'That is a real testament to the man — there's no way I would ever have been able to keep a secret like that!'
So chatty is Brian that this really isn't hard to believe and so enthusiastic is he about the show he is currently in that it is easy to see why he is such a good choice to play Barnum.
'I love the whole thing, from the way real circus performers are brought in and begin juggling and tumbling in the aisles before show even begins to the fact I can interact with the audience.
'And then, of course, there is my tightrope walk. When I do go across, it is incredibly tense. I put my hands above my head so the audience can see I don't have a safety wire and then I only go when I am ready – so there is quite a build-up.
'I think much of the tension is because they know it is real – it is Brian Conley up there, not someone who is really a circus performer.'
The musical, which also stars award-winning actress Linzi Hateley, tells the story of Barnum's life and his marriage to Chairy as he follows his dreams and finally teams up with J A Bailey to create Barnum and Bailey's Circus – the Greatest Show on Earth.
Written by Mark Bramble, with a score by Cy Coleman and lyrics by Michael Stewart — songs include the likes of Come Follow the Band, The Colours Of My Life and There Is A Sucker Born Ev'ry Minute — the show was first seen on Broadway in 1980 and starred Glenn Close and Jim Dale.
It went on to win three Tony Awards and a Drama Desk Award and, when it opened at the London Palladium in 1981, Michael Crawford took the lead and scooped an Olivier Award for his performance.
This latest version, revised and refreshed by Mark Bramble and Cameron Mackintosh, opened at Chichester Festival Theatre's Theatre in the Park last year, playing to almost 70,000 people. Brian then took on the lead role for the UK tour, which began in September.
'My wife and I have a running gag about the critics saying I was born to play a part after each show I do but I can honestly say I really was born to play this part,' Brian says. 'For me, as far as musicals go, it is a dream come true – it is like holding the FA Cup.
'Michael Crawford did it for five years and they say Barnum himself would do his show for five years. Well this has been nothing but a pleasure for me and I would certainly do the same – in fact, you can make it six.'