Theatre review: Barnum - Where every minute feels like an hour

For all its razzle-dazzle, this musical about circus trickster P T Barnum is mind-numbing

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The Independent Culture

There's a sucker born every minute. So says the eponymous circus owner in Barnum – the 1980s Broadway biomusical now enjoying a Chichester Festival Theatre revival, lavishly co-produced by Cameron Mackintosh. Indeed, the maxim is oft repeated by Christopher Fitzgerald's pint-sized Phineas T Barnum, accompanied by a cheeky-chappie whistle and winks at the audience.

In check trousers and scarlet neckerchief, he's the 19th-century master of touting bunkum. He claims his sideshows feature a 160-year-old woman and a mermaid. His wife, Tamsin Carroll's Chairy, purportedly prizes hard facts and honesty. Yet she's forever smiling indulgently, singing cloying duets, and allowing him – ah, of course – to embody the entrepreneurial American dream.

To be frank, Barnum strikes me, largely, as guff. Cy Coleman's numbers sound like circus classics regurgitated, with pooting tubas and bass drums. Mark Bramble's book is little more than a checklist of events, dramatising virtually nothing.

What's truly impressive is CFT's Theatre in the Park, a huge, newly-erected, dazzling, air-conditioned white tent replicating the festival's main auditorium, which is undergoing refurbishment. With bars and decking outside, this could become music theatre's Glyndebourne.

I just wish the production wasn't mind-numbing. The director Timothy Sheader tries his darnedest to make it spectacular fun, with a grinning chorus of trampolining acrobats, aerialists tossing flares, and ginormous elephants' legs dropping from above. Fitzgerald, working his socks off, nimbly walks a tightrope.

Nonetheless, I was bored rigid. I'm afraid the whoops of the opening-night crowd merely made me wonder if Phineas had underestimated the birth rate.

Meanwhile, at the Bush Theatre in west London, Josephine and I (****) celebrates the Jazz Age dancer and chanteuse Josephine Baker. This one-woman biodrama is written and performed by the acclaimed young actress Cush Jumbo, with much sympathy, charm and panache.

Described by Hemingway as "the most sensational woman anyone ever saw", Baker was a ground-breaking superstar and the first African-American female to headline a major motion picture. Alternately narrating chattily and transforming into Baker, Jumbo recounts how she was personally wowed as a child by the vintage movie Zouzou, in which Baker played the titular circus artiste.

Baker escaped poverty in Missouri, progressing with determination and pizzazz to Harlem, Broadway and Parisian revues. Taking the Folies Bergère by storm in the mid-1920s, she dazzled Picasso and Alexander Calder and was, we're told, the most photographed woman in the world.

Beyond that, she bravely assisted the French Resistance during the Second World War, transporting information written in invisible ink on her sheet music. Galled by persistent racism in the States, she was a high-profile supporter of the Civil Rights Movement, speaking alongside Martin Luther King in 1963. A lavish spendthrift, she went bankrupt thereafter, but pulled off a belated comeback at Carnegie Hall.

The Bush has been transformed into a snug, crimson-draped cabaret bar for the director Phyllida Lloyd's staging, with a tinkling pianist and the audience seated at lamp-lit tables.

Jumbo gets off to a slightly strained start as she races through Baker's early years, playing a high-pitched, knock-kneed little girl and a string of somewhat caricatured men, with her sternum thrust out and her vocal pitch diving. Also, while a talented singer and lithe dancer, she doesn't fully capture the corybantic exuberance of Baker's comical and erotic jiggling – the bum gyrating and legs flying as if she were skating around on butter.

Nonetheless, Josephine and I grows increasingly engrossing and trenchant as Jumbo interweaves apparently autobiographical anecdotes about her own career in the entertainment industry, including several breathtaking instances of ongoing sexism and xenophobia. In fact, this is surely her answer to the recent hits Red Velvet and Blackta rolled into one – sharply focusing on the lot of black female performers, historic and contemporary.

As for The Hush at the NT Shed (**), the best one can say is that having a temporary, vibrant orange shack outside the NT looks enticing. And this so-called "audacious sonic experiment" – exploring the power of sounds, in connection with personal memories – ought to have been more absorbing. Bizarrely, it's as if this devised work's co-creators have never heard mention of the director Katie Mitchell. Her casts have, for years now, been sophisticatedly multi-tasking as stage actors, live camera-operators and foley artists. By contrast, the writer Ben Power and electronic musician Matthew Herbert merely offer a sorely underdeveloped chamber piece.

Two mournful souls (actors Susannah Wise and Tobias Menzies) alternately fetch up at a kind of sinister/therapeutic recording studio. She listens to tapes of nice and alarming noises (country garden and hospital corridor), supposedly archived by her terminally ill father. Like a screwed-up Professor Higgins crossed with Beckett's Krapp, Menzies is trying to recreate the acoustic of his ex, who smoked and typed a lot. Two foley artists – half-visible on a dimly lit balcony – make some sound effects. Others are prerecorded, bemusingly piecemeal fillers. There was one spooky moment when the studio couch began breathing heavily. Or maybe it was snoring. All credit to Wise and Menzies for their unflagging intensity.

'Barnum' ( to 31 Aug; 'Josephine and I' ( to 17 Aug; 'The Hush' (nationaltheatre to 3 Aug

Critic's Choice

James Baldwin's tragicomedy The Amen Corner – in which a bad-boy husband and rebelling parishioners cause trouble for a preacher-woman in 1950s Harlem – is outstanding, with great acting and storming gospel music. At London's National Theatre (to 14 Aug). Bristol Old Vic's family show, The Boy Who Cried Wolf, draws on Michael Morpurgo's retelling of Aesop's Fables. It's al fresco, on a verdant set outside the theatre, with folksy music (to 1 Sept).