The Show Must Go On, Even When the Big Attraction Dies

Taking their cue from the city of St. Thomas, the Blyth Festival is celebrating its 45th season with an unusual opener.  They are examining the death of Jumbo, the biggest circus elephant to ever live.  But he happened to die in St. Thomas, a fact that the community proudly celebrates.  A big elephant statue welcomes everyone to the city, and a former mayor has a huge collection of Jumbo memorabilia.

Artistic Director Gil Garratt commissioned playwright Sean Dixon to bring the play Jumbo to the stage.  The pair travelled to St. Thomas for research and met with former mayor and politician Steve Peters, the Jumbo historian.  This true story makes for some interesting theatre, and the development of it should continue.

The first act is essentially a visit to the circus.  P.T. Barnum welcomes us to the big top, which opens with a high wire act.  But rather than real tight rope walkers, wooden puppets scamper across a wire strung up at waist level.  There’s a unicycle rider and stilt walker, as well as an aerialist who performs on a rope hung in front of the stage in order to be seen by all.  We see clowns and some freaks – the bearded lady and the armless man.  Later, there’s a juggler practicing, and finally Jumbo, a giant elephant controlled by his human handlers, lumbers out. 

The second act follows the death of Jumbo, and tells how his demise affects the circus family.  For most of them, the show must go on.  They leave St. Thomas for the next show in London.  But Annie, the bearded lady, stays behind, professing her love for Jumbo.  She ensures the butcher doesn’t chop up the carcass, and tries to get the farmer’s permission to bury Jumbo.  Finally P.T. Barnum’s taxidermist shows up to arrange having the giant animal stuffed, per Barnum’s orders.

Jumbo himself appears on stage as a huge elephant puppet.  Credit goes to puppet designer and constructor Gemma James-Smith for bringing the big creature to life.  She has followed the style of horses used in the 2012 production of War Horse in Toronto, also similar to the polar bears in Stratford’s The Breathing Hole last year.  My only concern with the puppeteering would be that it is performed by a clown in costume, so Jumbo appears to have red and black striped legs.

Due to the illness of the original actor, director Gil Garratt has temporarily stepped into the role of P.T. Barnum, and gives a fine performance as usual.  The opening scene where Barnum is so busy talking and looking around that the barber can hardly finish his haircut is hilarious.  Unfortunately, the audience is distracted by the strange choice of having a taxidermist accompany Barnum to the barbershop, so some opportunities for humour are lost.

Peter Bailey is an interesting and charming barber.  But when he returns in the second act, we wonder if it’s the same actor playing a different character.  It takes a while to discern that he is suffering from amnesia.

Tony Munch is excellent as Matthew Scott, Jumbo’s trainer and caretaker, who had come from England with the elephant.  His drinking gives credence to the stories of Jumbo’s enjoyment of beer.

The circus characters give interesting performances in act one, and certainly the most polished is Mark Segal as Juan, the aerialist.  Unfortunately we don’t learn enough about the characters to understand how Jumbo’s death might affect them.  While the bearded lady is most upset, it seems disingenuous because we haven’t seen any bond between her and Jumbo previously.  Perhaps her stiff performance prevents the audience from seeing the relationship.  The play lacks a connection between the two acts and therefore seems disjointed.

Other choices are questionable.  Tired, old elephant jokes seem out of place and are used as filler.  Tin cans on string rather than an early telephone look odd.  We are asked to believe that a stampede of elephants come down the railroad tracks to view Jumbo’s body.  Then the play comes to a strange conclusion where a character attempts to recap the story with a series of random words.

Barnum was known to be a scam artist, so I wondered if the little wooden tight rope walkers were actually something that Barnum might have used high in the circus tent to look like real people.  That isn’t addressed, so the wooden men must be dramatic licence representing real tight rope walkers.  In fact, none of Barnum’s frauds are mentioned.

Jumbo has always fascinated me – both my parents were from St. Thomas, so I grew up hearing the stories.  I remember going to a museum and seeing items found in Jumbo’s stomach – coins and small cast iron toys, which I was delighted to hear mentioned in the play.  But the play waffles between comedy and drama.  Some of the scenes indicate it is going to be a spoof, then we are expected to be emotional over Jumbo’s death.  It lacks the right blend to be both.

David Suzuki did a fascinating documentary about Jumbo’s death a few years ago.  There is so much more interesting history that could be explored.

Jumbo continues in repertory at the Blyth Festival until August 10.  Call 519-523-9300 / 1-877-862-5984 or go to www.blythfestival.com for tickets.

Photo:  Tiffany Claire Martin, Lucy Meanwell, Gil Garratt, Julie Tamiko Manning, Tony Munch, Kurtis Leon Baker and Mark Segal with Jumbo. Photo by Terry Manzo. 

By Sean Dixon
Directed by Gil Garratt
Circus Master Manon Beaudoin
Performed by Gil Garratt, Peter Bailey, Kurtis Leon Baker, Julie Tamiko Mannng, Tiffany Martin, Michael McManus, Lucy Meanwell, Tony Munch, Mark Segal.
Blyth Festival, Blyth
June 12 to August 10, 2019
Reviewed by Mary Alderson


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