Josephine and I; Barnum; The Hush – review

Bush, London; Theatre in the Park, Chichester; The Shed, London

Actor Cush Jumbo's first play, Josephine and I, juxtaposes the lives of two performers. One is the phenomenal entertainer Josephine Baker (1906-75); the other is Girl, a 27-year-old actor who is a lot like Jumbo herself. On a tiny stage, using a minimum of props (including an "exceedingly altered" Tiny Tears doll, a home-made zoetrope, the contents of a handbag, some spangles and feathers), Jumbo transports us to Josephine's home in St Louis, Missouri, to grimy clubs with seedy clients, to theatres where lighter-skinned chorus girls forced her to the end of the line, to adulation in 1920s Paris and racist rejection in the US of the 30s. A gallery of vivid characters flashes before us: parents, bandleaders, stage managers, husbands (Josephine had four).

It's a dazzling tour de force by this truly brilliant performer. But Jumbo offers more. Girl interrupts her presentation of Josephine's career to talk about what's happening in her own life. This is both personal (relationships, motherhood versus career) and political (experiences of racism, motherhood versus career). Separately, the two strands reflect the lives of two particular individuals; intertwined, they achieve a universal resonance.

Directed by Phyllida Lloyd, the action begins in front of closed red curtains. As it progresses, these open to reveal a screen on to which images are projected in black and white – train tracks, as Josephine tours; imaginary shadows of a dance of which no record remains; the 1963 march on Washington in support of John F Kennedy's proposed civil rights bill, where Josephine was the only female speaker (film sequences by Ravi Deepres). As Josephine's life falls apart – heart attacks, eviction from the chateau where she has tried to raise her "rainbow tribe" of 12 adopted children – the screen rises to reveal bare stone walls punctuated by wooden-shuttered windows (Anthony Ward's design). Small and alone in a space seeming suddenly huge, Josephine/Girl/Jumbo is, for a moment, the image of all humanity, struggling for survival.

Josephine died in April 1975, four days after appearing in a sell-out retrospective revue in Monaco. While singing a final number, Jumbo removes hip-hugging fishtail dress and feathers, transforming into the Girl, who is every girl with hopes and dreams, struggling against the efforts of the world to make her less than she is or might be. This last song, The Times They Are a-Changin', so simply delivered, provokes questions. What has changed between Josephine's times and ours? How much more must be changed? Entertaining, poetic, political, this is a tremendous production.

At the opposite end of the stage-biography scale stands Barnum. It's big and it's brash, as is only right and proper for a musical about the man behind the circus he called "the greatest show on Earth". Like Josephine Baker, PT Barnum (1810-91) followed his dream. Being white and a man, he didn't have to leave his native US to achieve it (although, as the book makes clear, he was an early, if unsuccessful, equal rights campaigner).

Barnum opened on Broadway in 1980 and was an immediate hit (10 Tony awards nominations included Best Musical, Best Book and Best Score). This new, revised version by producer Cameron Mackintosh and the show's original writer, Mark Bramble (still with Cy Coleman's music and Michael Stewart's lyrics), has the best possible setting in Chichester's own, newly erected theatre tent. This temporary venue (during the main theatre's reconstruction) rivals in scale even Barnum's own "finest canvas pavilions ever erected anywhere on Earth". Sightlines and acoustics are impeccable.

Christopher Fitzgerald fizzes in the lead; his energy is incredible and his tightrope walk as he sings Out There is breathtaking. His bumptiousness seems so natural that the emotional delicacy of his lament for his late wife comes as a touching surprise. Tamsin Carroll, as Mrs Barnum, has just the right mix of chiding, loving and gung ho support for Barnum's wild schemes.

Liam Steel and Andrew Wright's choreography cleverly substitutes human bodies for set (tables, chairs, stairs), keeping the movement flowing  and building throughout, crescendoing to the pre-finale Join the Circus with aerialists, acrobats and fire jugglers magnificently flipping, flopping and flying all over stage and auditorium. Under Adam Rowe's musical directorship, the orchestra segues effortlessly from softly lyrical to foot-tappingly jolly. Timothy Sheader's direction is clear, sharp and witty – you will see the biggest elephant on Earth. Believe me! Would I humbug you?

The Hush is described as "a meditation on what sound can do to the memory". In a room, a man instructs two sound-effects artists (visible on a balcony above him) and one sound engineer (also visible above) how to create his memory of a particular room at a particular time. In the same room, at different times, a woman listens to the sounds created by her father to evoke moments from her past. At first it's fun to focus on listening and to watch sounds being made, but the ideas, going nowhere, become tedious. At 20 minutes this would have been an interesting provocation; at 45 minutes-plus it's pretentious.


Clare Brennan

The GuardianTramp

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