“The audience jumped to its feet to fervently applaud when Smith took her bow at the curtain call, and she burst into tears.”
Funny Girl is not an easy musical to revive, chiefly because it will be forever associated with Barbra Streisand’s career-defining performance in the 1968 film version, having originated the role on Broadway five years earlier. It’s two hits, ‘People’ and ‘Don’t Rain on My Parade’, will be also forever linked to Barbra, while all the other songs written by Julie Styne and Bob Merrill are largely forgotten. Audiences who see the 2016 West End revival, currently on tour and playing at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, will take their seats to wait for those two beloved numbers, both for the familiarity of them and to see how star of the show, Sheridan Smith acquits herself.
Smith also plays Brice for laughs, and boy does she get them at every turn.
The wisdom of Smith’s performance, aided and abetted by a revised book from gay Broadway colossus Harvey Fierstein (Hairspray, Kinky Boots), is that it makes you forget about those two songs until they appear, and by the time they do you’ve all but forgotten Barbra. Smith may be a strong singer (she belted out all her own numbers when playing Cilla Black in the 2014 TV bio-drama, Cilla), but let’s face it, nobody has a set of pipes that can come near to La Streisand’s. Instead Smith relies on the musical comedy chops she forged on London’s West End, where she first started treading the boards aged 16 in a revival of Bugsy Malone, bringing a smart sense of theatricality to the performance and making it all her own.
This fits in well with a show that’s all about putting on a show. Michael Palevka’s set has a mirror of a theatre at the rear, and Smith and co regularly perform to an imaginary audience with their backs to the real audience, bringing us all firmly back stage. The Ziegfeld Follies we witness, of which Brice was a huge star, are less about feathers, sequins and wonder than about tights and make-up and practice runs; the dance routines have an intimate sense of the joy of performing about them rather than the big, routine spectacle we’ve been groomed to expect from such expensive outings.
Amid all this, Smith plays Brice as a woman who only really lives on stage, surrounded by audiences on all sides, winking and nudging even when she’s going through the heartbreak of a failing marriage to the man she loves enough to abandon the theatre for, at least at the end of the first act. Her version of ‘People’ is shy and awkward as she reveals the vulnerable heart beneath insatiable ambition, while her ‘Don’t Rain On My Parade’ is a persevering battle cry, rather than the original ecstatic belter.
Smith also plays Brice for laughs, and boy does she get them at every turn. Her years on sitcom Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps have honed a singular comedy talent, every gag is timed perfectly and the audience laughs with her, not at her – something that’s as key to this version of the role as it was to the real Brice herself. Fanny’s dashing love interest, Nick Arnstein says to her at one point: “You have a relationship with the audience; it’s like you’re their friend”. Smith works this relationship like the pro she is; there’s even a moment where she corpses, hiding her face in embarrassment as she giggles inappropriately, and as you belly laugh along there’s no knowing whether it’s really happening or it’s part of Michael Mayer’s stage direction. It doesn’t matter either; you’re on Smith’s side from the moment she enters stage left to the moment she takes her final bow.
Less successful is her chemistry with ex Popstar to Operastar winner, dishy Darius Campbell who lends his considerable vocal talents to the part of Nick. You get the sense that they like each other as people in real life, but the sizzling spark that was there between Streisand and Omar Sharif in the film version is missing. It might be to do with Campbell’s stature (who knew he was so tall?), which makes for all sorts of awkward angles as the diminutive Smith tries to cuddle into him. Still, they work well together for comedy routines, particularly on the duet, ‘You Are Woman, I Am Man’, and in a way the lack of sizzle adds to Smith’s domination of the proceedings.
The audience jumped to its feet to fervently applaud when Smith took her bow at the curtain call, and she burst into tears. Rachel Izen, who gives a lovely performance as Fanny’s mother, reached out to touch Smith reassuringly on the shoulder, and the moment didn’t feel like a performance, although they’ve taken this curtain call together many times before. One way or another, Smith more than deserved the standing ovation. Her performance is a masterful tour de force, one that may turn out to be as career defining as the original was for Streisand.
Funny Girl: The Musical runs at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre until July 15, get tickets here.
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