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Co-op Juniors bring the greatest showman Barnum to the big top at Wherstead Park, Ipswich

PUBLISHED: 14:08 21 June 2018 | UPDATED: 14:08 21 June 2018

Peter Ling as Barnum with Harriet Bacon as Charity and some of the Co-op Juniors cast appearing in Barnum in the big top at Wherstead Park, Ipswich, from June 28. Picture: ALAN AYRES

Peter Ling as Barnum with Harriet Bacon as Charity and some of the Co-op Juniors cast appearing in Barnum in the big top at Wherstead Park, Ipswich, from June 28. Picture: ALAN AYRES

Alan Ayres

The greatest show comes to Ipswich next week in the shape of Barnum - the Co-op Juniors Theatre Company’s most ambitious summer musical yet.

The huge Circus Fantasia big top rises from the ground on four king poles, secured by 128 steel stakes and 74 side poles. It moves almost every Sunday as the circus tours the south-east. Picture: ALAN AYRESThe huge Circus Fantasia big top rises from the ground on four king poles, secured by 128 steel stakes and 74 side poles. It moves almost every Sunday as the circus tours the south-east. Picture: ALAN AYRES

Director Oliver Brett, standing in the empty field where a big top will magically rise, said: “Barnum is a huge musical that combines all the excitement of circus and theatre. It’s the story of the greatest showman ever, Phineas T Barnum and his amazing life.”

The success of the film musical The Greatest Showman, starring Hugh Jackman, introduced a new generation to the phenomenon that was Barnum.

Teaming up with James Bailey, Barnum and Bailey’s Greatest Show circus travelled America in a custom-built train complete with performing animals during the 19th Century, changing entertainment for ever.

They sold the circus - and their famous names - to Ringling Brothers in 1907. The circus thrived for another 110 years until closing in May 2017.

Peter Ling, centre, playing Barnum, trained on the wire with professional circus performers Domingo Morales and Nayara Carrillo from Circus Fantasia. Picture: ALAN AYRESPeter Ling, centre, playing Barnum, trained on the wire with professional circus performers Domingo Morales and Nayara Carrillo from Circus Fantasia. Picture: ALAN AYRES

Barnum premiered on Broadway in 1980 with Jim Dale playing the title role. The following year, the London production at the Palladium starred Michael Crawford.

“The musical is a challenge in so many ways. It’s a sweeping story with larger than life characters. It’s set in the 1800s in the USA, so the design has to take account of that period. And of course, there are more circus skills than you can juggle into one show,” said Oliver.

Directing, designing and choreographing this past four months meant keeping a lot of balls in the air. The Co-op Juniors cast have also been busy honing their circus skills with professional trainers. Expect juggling, plate spinning, stilt walking and some other surprises.

Because the New Wolsey Theatre is swarming with builders, the company had to find a new home for Barnum this summer.

Some of the Co-op Juniors cast rehearsing for Barnum in the big top at Wherstead Park, Ipswich, from June 28. Picture: ALAN AYRESSome of the Co-op Juniors cast rehearsing for Barnum in the big top at Wherstead Park, Ipswich, from June 28. Picture: ALAN AYRES

“Our technical director, Alan Ayres, went to see Circus Fantasia when they were in Ipswich last October. He told us he’d found a great venue for Barnum. We were all amazed when we found out it’s a real circus big top.”

Alan remembered his first meeting with Matthew Wingate, director of Circus Fantasia, and Roy Parris.

“They were so enthusiastic about being involved, right from the start. Since then we’ve worked with the circus, some of their performers and their big top team to work out how to present Barnum.

“East of England Co-op have been fantastically supportive, we’re even staging it at its head office. It’s the best year for it, as this is the 250th anniversary of circus in Britain and the Co-op’s 150th.”

Circus Fantasia’s Matthew said being part of a musical production with the Co-op Juniors was a fascinating break from their weekly tour schedule all over the south-east.

“We’ve worked with their team on circus skills for the cast and the way everything is presented in the big top. It’s great to see how circus and musical theatre can work so well together.”

Adding spectacle to the show are two professional aerial artists who happen to be from Norfolk.

Oliver added: “We couldn’t allow our cast to perform high above the circus ring on silks or trapeze, so sisters Kizzy and Tilly Packham are working with us to add more surprises to the show. It’s going to be a feast for the eyes and ears.”

Playing the legendary Barnum has required a leap of faith for Peter Ling, who acts, sings, dances, juggles and walks a tightrope.

“There’s a lot to think about, more than in a regular musical, for all the cast. We were lucky to have the support of circus professional Ed Meredith to train us,” said Peter.

Wire walking was one of the most difficult skills to master, so he worked with Domingo Morales and Nayara Carrillo from Circus Fantasia to build his technique and confidence.

“It’s still the most stressful moment in the show for me. Who wants to fall off in front of an audience.”

See Barnum at the big top, at Wherstead Park, Ipswich, for seven performances from June 28-July 1. Call 01473 295900 or visit www.wolseytheatre.co.uk/barnum for tickets.

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