Funny Girl has been an iconic show of musical theatre for over 50 years, and the current production – now playing at the Savoy Theatre after a sold-out run at the Menier Chocolate Factory – shows us exactly why.
It’s a fun, bright, joyous package of a show, featuring such standards as People and Don’t Rain On My Parade. Narrative-wise, it’s simple: Fanny Brice wants to make it as a star, but instead of relying on her looks and hourglass figure like other chorus girls, she finds a breakthrough with her wit, funniness and comedic timing and to become a variety act capable of bringing down the house with her self-deprecating humour and stunning, powerful vocals.
But she soon discovers that fame comes at a price, namely that of the life she has been building with gambling man Nick Arnstein, as Fanny struggles to juggle married life with the thrill of the stage.
In reviewing Funny Girl – and in discussing the off-stage patter that drives the narrative of the second act – it would be wrong not mention the off-stage dramas that have also impacted this very production. Olivier Award-winner Sheridan Smith – who played the role of Fanny for the duration of the Menier Chocolate Factory run – left the production shortly after its transfer to the Savoy after suffering from stress and exhaustion. The official line is that she’ll be back no later than week commencing 11 July to complete her run – that’s next week!
But on the night we saw the show, Fanny was played by understudy Natasha J Barnes, who has been showered with praise for the way she’s stepped into such a significant role – and rightly so. Barnes is barely off the stage for the whole two-and-a-half hours, and she simply triumphs as Fanny. Her vocals are incredible, never better than when she’s belting that final verse of the iconic Don’t Rain On My Parade; but there’s also a softness and beauty to her tone, too, expertly demonstrated in numbers like You Are Woman and Who Are You Now?, which add another dimension to Fanny’s troubled character.
Barnes also deserves the accolades for how funny she is. She is, after all, playing a comedian. She’s hilarious throughout, pulling an incredible array of facial expressions and doing the odd “nudge-nudge, wink-wink” to the audience to brilliant effect, and during the livelier “on stage” moments of the show – Sadie, Sadie; Rat-Tat-Tat-Tat – she’s utterly hysterical.
And okay, we’ll admit it, it was a shame to not see Smith in the role this time – Fanny is frankly a role you can imagine she was born to play – but the honest truth is, you won’t miss her if you’re seeing the show before her return. In an age when theatrical productions are so heavily promoted on the back of a star name, understudies tend to get a bad rep., but the fact is Barnes is a star worthy of headlining this show. She’s simply wonderful.
The rest of the cast, led by Darius Campbell as Arnstein, are magnificent too. Special mention has to go Marilyn Cutts, Gay Soper and Valda Aviks as Mrs. Brice and her poker buddies, who are just outstanding; and it’s hard to remember seeing such an jovial cast as this, especially when the whole company unites for the excellent party number Henry Street.
Ultimately though, this is Fanny’s show, and with Barnes in the role – and, we suspect, Ms. Smith when she returns – it’s one helluva ride.
Funny Girl is currently showing at the Savoy Theatre until 8 October 2016. Sheridan Smith is expected to return to the role of Fanny Brice week commencing 11 July. Book now at Ticketmaster.co.uk. A UK tour will open in Manchester next year, with casting still to be announced.