COMEDIAN, TV star, singer, actor… Brian Conley is an all-round entertainer and seems to be able to handle anything. But his latest role is probably the toughest he’s ever had.
His stage career has seen him win plaudits for roles as diverse as Fagin in Oliver! and Edna Turnblad in Hairspray, but he’s currently turned himself into a circus star to play America’s greatest ever showman in Barnum.
“I have to fire-eat, juggle, do acrobatics and walk the high-wire blindfolded,” he says with a gulp. But having played Phineas T Barnum for over a year and not injured himself, he has every right to feel proud.
“Without doubt walking on the high-wire is the toughest thing I have to do in the show,” says Brian.
“There’s a lot of skill involved and when I watch people do it I now have a far greater understanding of just how difficult it is. That’s been something to master, and I’m not a golfer but I think it’s a bit like that: you think you’ve cracked it and then you come back the next day and think ‘Oh, no I haven’t’, but that’s exciting and it builds to a wonderful climax at the end of the first half.
“I’m there, and I’m on top of it… hopefully.”
Even though he’s been hugely successful – in the ’90s he was the highest-paid star on British TV – it must have been daunting to follow in the footsteps of Michael Crawford and Jim Dale as Barnum. But Brian remains confident he’s done a good job of portraying the showman who created the ‘greatest show on Earth’.
“I think you’ve got to make it yours and I feel as if the comedy is much stronger,” he says.
“When I saw it I said, ‘If it’s going to be funny, then let’s make it really funny and, if it’s not working, then there’s just no point. So we’ve really worked on that, but obviously keeping it in the character and not just adding stuff for the sake of it.”
He says he was well armed to take on the role. “I’m a showman,” he stresses. “I’m used to having my own act and I’m used to talking to an audience. Jim and Michael were both actors whereas I’m more of an entertainer, and I feel that the character is an entertainer.
“He’s a showman – he’s very charming but also quite manipulative. He likes to make sure he gets his own way. I think I can bring something else to it.
“Everyone does it differently. I’ve always been a keen magician so we’ve got some magic in there as well. Crawford was… just like in Some Mothers… more of a stuntman, we’re not doing so much of that but we’re definitely making them laugh a lot more.”
The musical follows Barnum’s life, his marriage to Chairy (played by Linzi Hateley) and his eventual link-up with JA Bailey.
“It’s a true story,” says Brian. “He’s a real character and in his day he was known as one of the most famous men in America, more famous than the president. He was the first man to create advertising really, in the way we know it now, so, you know, he’s to blame.
“But he was a wonderful showman – it was his idea to have the three-ring circus – he went into politics, he had an affair, lost millions, got millions…
“It’s a fantastic story with a circus background, lots of colour, lots of high comedy, and some cracking songs, some of the best songs, I think, in musical theatre.
“It was the first show I ever saw in London, many moons ago, with Michael Crawford, and here we are again, who knows how many years later, and I’m doing it.”