Actor and comedian Brian Conley is really treading a fine line in his latest stage role, Barnum, which is in Sheffield next week.
The TV star said that he was sent off to circus school for six months to learn a range of skills including how to walk a tightrope – a feat he performs every night on stage. He also has to eat fire, juggle and walk on stilts. Brian said of the tightrope scene: “You think you’ve got it and it jumps up and bites you back on the bum! There’s a lot more to it than you think.
“It’s wonderful exercise, using every muscle in your body. You’re balancing on the middle of your feet.”
The tightrope is 10 feet across and seven feet up in the air and there’s no safety net or wires. Brian said: “A lot of people think, I bet he’s not going to do this, and then I do.”
So far he’s broken a finger and sprained his ankle.
Brian explained that in the show the tightrope walking comes at a dramatic moment. Barnum is having an affair and his mistress is standing on the edge of a bridge, so he’s walking a tightrope in his real life.
The show looks at the life of Phineas T Barnum, billed as America’s Greatest Showman.
Born in 1810, He created Barnum’s American Museum in New York, which was a display of wonders, monstrosities and curiosities, turned an elephant from London Zoo into an international superstar and with his partner James Bailey created the Greatest Show on Earth, which was then the largest circus venture in American history.
Brian said: “It’s the story of the first entrepreneur and the second millionaire in the US. When he died he was the country’s richest man. It’s not a circus show but that’s the glue that holds it together. Barnum achieved a lot in his career and life.”
He added: “It’s a wonderful show. You can only expect that from Sir Cameron Mackintosh. He hasn’t skimped on anything. There’s 28 in the company and a full orchestra.”
Brian was thrilled to be asked by Sir Cameron to be in the show. As a young actor in the early 1980s he watched in awe from the wings at the London Palladium as Michael Crawford created the role in London. Jim Dale was also a big hit as Barnum on Broadway.
He said: “It’s the first show I ever saw in the West End. I was delighted to eventually be asked.
“It’s probably the mostly highly coveted role that anyone would wish to play in musical theatre. It’s a wonderful challenge.”
As a seasoned musical theatre star, Brian isn’t fazed by his famous predecessors, though. “I’m Brian Conley not Michael Crawford. He has a light voice and mine is deeper and more heavy so it’s going to be different.
“We’ve also rewritten some of the show and brought some of the comedy into the 21st century.”
Brian hasn’t been on our TV screens for a while but he is making a new TV series for the BBC and says he’s looking forward to it.
He can’t talk much about it yet but said: “It’s a cracking show. There’s no master plan to my career, it just what happens. I just see where life takes me.”
Brian says that he’s excited that life’s taking him back to Sheffield for Barnum at the Lyceum.
“I can’t remember the last time I was in the city. To be honest, all the theatres look the same when you’re on tour. As long as there’s a Gregg’s, it will be fine.”
So if you see a famous face in the queue at the baker’s asking for a sausage roll in that distinctive London voice, you’ll know the Greatest Show on Earth’s in town.
Barnum is at the Lyceum next week from Tuesday to Saturday.
Box office: at the Crucible, online at Sheffield Theatres or call 0114 2496000.