Jumbo At The Blyth Festival – A Review

Few people associate P. T. Barnum with southern Ontario. Yet one of the most traumatic events of his storied career occurred in St Thomas, a city not far from the shores of Lake Erie. There, in 1885, during a Canadian tour, his circus’s prize African elephant, Jumbo, was killed by an unscheduled freight train as he was being led to the boxcar in which he traveled. The Blyth Festival is now telling the tale of Jumbo’s death and its immediate aftermath in an ambitious but ultimately unsuccessful play by Sean Dixon titled, appropriately enough, Jumbo.

The play is an uncomfortable mixture of styles and moods. The first act introduces us to the members of Barnum’s traveling circus, all actual historical figures, and to the history of Jumbo, purchased from the London zoo when he was quite young and no one knew how large he would eventually become. Dixon uses short, fragmented scenes to give us a sense of the razzle-dazzle of the circus and the colorful characters who inhabit that world. This is an approach that other Blyth productions have used quite effectively. Unfortunately, few in the cast possess the requisite circus skills to make any of this truly compelling. Only the Spanish acrobat, Juan Caicedo (Mark Segal), who does a Cirque-du-Soleil-like aerial turn in the tight space between stage and audience, impresses.

Director Gil Garratt hasn’t helped matters by using placards set on easels at the sides of the stage to indicate the geographical location of the many scenes. It adds an old-fashioned, period flavor to the proceedings, but having an actor change the signs, first one, then the other, slows the pace to a molasses-like crawl. Then, too, there are gaps between short scenes you could drive the proverbial truck through. A little tightening would go a long way.

Of course, the center of Act One is Jumbo and both playwright and performers do a good job of making him a real presence and a believable character. The best parts of the show are scenes in which we come to appreciate the bond between beast and keeper and the almost loving relationship that grows between Jumbo and the bearded lady of the circus (Lucy Meanwell).

Act One ends with Jumbo’s fatal accident which Garratt has staged very effectively. Deprived of Jumbo’s charismatic presence, Act Two suffers as it struggles to find the right tone, lurching from straight drama, to commedia dell’arte comedy, to a sort of expressive dance, and back to straight drama. When the play shambled to a close, few in the audience seemed to be aware that it had, in fact, ended.

There are some good performances. The aforementioned Mark Segal as the aerialist Caicedo is physically compelling, although his Spanish accent was often impenetrable; he also is effective in Act Two as a local butcher ready to hack Jumbo to pieces. Tony Munch is touching as Jumbo’s devoted keeper and Michael McManus is a standout as “The Armless Wonder.” Peter Bailey gives an animated and ingratiating performance as an African-American veteran of the war between the states, although his function in the play was something of a mystery to me.

The indisputable star, however, is Jumbo, or rather the enormous and ingenious life-sized puppet Gemma James-Smith has created to represent him. Almost literally a thing of rags and patches, her creation is remarkably life-like and believable thanks to some exquisite puppetry. Kurtis Leon Baker, who also plays other roles, does a masterful job of manipulating the large head and ears, while Tony Munch unobtrusively brings Jumbo’s trunk to life. When Jumbo turns his sad, soulful eyes to the audience he almost seems to be saying, “Why can’t I be in a better play?”

[Photo: The cast of Jumbo by Terry Manzo, © 2019 courtesy of The Blyth Festival.]

Jumbo plays through August 10, 2019

The Blyth Festival
423 Queen Street
Blyth, ON N0M 1H0
(877) 862-5984
https://blythfestival.com/