It seems ironic that on the night when the print critics headed off to Chichester, from whence this show came, to throw themselves at the feet of Imelda Staunton in Gypsy, we should be attending the London opening of  the re-worked Cameron Mackintosh production of Barnum.

It is, quite simply, not the same show.  Chichester staged it in a tented temporary structure on balmy July and August evenings with all the thrills of the big top but no West End names.  Few of the cast survive the transfer, and director Timothy Sheader was allegedly dismissed for being ‘not commercial’ so really what’s come to London is skiploads of Paul Wills’ costumes, Paule Constable’s saturated lighting plot illuminating Scott Pask’s vibrant big top set with an ensemble boosted by several talented European circus artistes and a winning ‘General Tom Thumb’ in Mikey Jay-Heath.

Headlining it with natural showman Brian Conley and long-time reliable leading lady Linzi Hateley, Mackintosh has a brought it indoors for the winter as a cheering and colourful vehicle for the long road tour.

Like Sir Cameron himself, P T Barnum was a showman to his fingertips and a small-town boy turned impresario who was at one point the richest man in America. The constant reversions of Barnum’s fortunes are neatly detailed in the show, with Cy Coleman’s brightly tuneful score championing his successes with bravura marches, and underpinning the sadder events with a couple of beautiful ballads. In these, and in all her engagements with Conley, Linzi Hateley brings this production a new heart and centre: their mutual affection is always palpable and if they aren’t a couple of actors who genuinely like each other, they are, well, remarkable actors.

Conley’s immense likeability spills over the footlights to fill even this huge and glorious Frank Matcham auditorium and it would be good to allow him more time and free rein to engage with the audience, they love it and he’s in his element.

His voice has always had a touch of the baritone Bonnie Tyler, an engaging rasp to its edge, but last night while still powerful he did seem to be struggling and some of the lyrics were more shouted than sung. If he is unwell, there’s a tremendous understudy available in John Stacey, a stalwart of so many West End shows and while wishing Mr Conley no harm it would be a pleasure to see him cover the role.

But Conley still bears all before him in a performance which mounts in excitement towards the interval and where this production scores over Chichester is because there’s real jeopardy in whether he’ll make it across the high wire. While singing the best number in the show ‘Out There’. It’s debatable whether it’s more thrilling when he does it in one, or if he needs a second go, but the absolute pleasure of seeing an entire audience root for a star performer is so rare it’s worth the price of admission for this alone.

Crawford fell off lots of times, by the way. In 1981 I’d been to his first night at the Palladium and later saw him hobbling alone down Argyll Street. We had a brief chat mostly about his injuries and he offered to sign my programme. But this wasn’t the same night I’d been to Barnum. Which is why I have the only programme for Annie signed by Michael Crawford.