Theatre Review – Funny Girl at the Menier Chocolate Factory

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When tickets to the Menier Chocolate Factory’s revival of Funny Girl went on sale, I just wasn’t fast enough (with the show becoming the Menier’s fastest selling show in 11 years). Luckily, on checking the website on Friday, I was able to nab a ticket for Saturday’s matinee. After the rapid sell out status and hype I was suitably intrigued, particularly as someone who wasn’t alive to see it on stage in London when it premiered here in 1966 and who hasn’t seen the iconic Barbara Streisand film.

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Sheridan Smith as Fanny Brice

Set in the 1910s and 20s, Funny Girl centres on the life of Fanny Brice, a Jewish New York girl, determined to be a star of the stage, who won’t take no for an answer. Through the show we see her grow from a young, ambitious nobody, to a hugely famous and sought after headliner. However we also see how despite her professional success, her personal life was not as happy as she’d dreamed.

Playing the title role of Fanny Brice is Sheridan Smith, who with two Olivier wins, a BAFTA and Emmy nominations under her belt is emerging as one of Britain’s rising acting talents. I first saw her on stage in Legally Blonde (a role in which she won me over, despite my initial skepticism) and have since seen her handle more serious theatrical material in Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler and Rattingan’s Flare Path. Then of course there was her television role as Cilla Black, demonstrating to a wider audience what a great vocal talent she is. She was therefore the obvious choice for the part of Fanny in 2015, stepping in to a role many thought was only able to be played by Streisand.

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The cast of Funny Girl

Her voice is very good in this production although, unlike in Legally Blonde, I thought that she struggled a little with the higher notes in some of the show’s powerful numbers. However, Smith brings her personality to the role in spades, making Fanny a person who is very believable. She plays her with a very real sense of fun, mischief, strength, determination, but also vulnerability. She is just a normal young woman, which makes the audience be naturally drawn to her and root for her happiness and success. Smith is certainly an all-round performer, which she maximizes to the full in Funny Girl, with brilliant comic timing throughout. Through her mannerisms, expressions, humour and honesty the character comes to life wonderfully and I can’t think of many actresses who would be able to bring so many necessary skills to the role.

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Darius Campbell and Sheridan Smith

The cast also sees the return to musical theatre of Darius Campbell (still best known for Popstars / Pop Idol) and who, after missing From Here to Eternity, I last saw on stage in the short-lived Gone with The Wind in 2008. Playing Fanny Brice’s love interest and later husband Nick Arnstein, he is the perfect tall, dark and handsome stranger, who walks in to her life in his tux and ruffled shirt. He is almost too handsome to be honest, but he has a great voice and manages to create a very credible chemistry with Smith, as we see her besotted with him, while he struggles to accept her greater success. However it is quite an under developed role on the page (despite Harvey Fierstein’s revised book), so you never really care about him the same way you care about Fanny.

There is also strong support from Marilyn Cutts as Fanny’s mother, there for all the highs and lows of her daughter’s life and Cutts and Smith have a natural bond, which is lovely to watch.

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Darius Campbell, Sheridan Smith & Marilyn Cutts

The staging has clearly been created with a larger stage in mind, perhaps even the Savoy Theatre (to which the production transfers in April). This is mainly because the production does at times feel cramped on the Menier’s intimate stage and some scenes will benefit from the larger space next year. I’ve seen a lot of comments on the costumes in this production, especially Smith’s outfits. Some are certainly nicer than others and Smith does look a bit matronly. However, I assumed this was trying to sell the play’s notion that Fanny isn’t beautiful like all the tall, slim, glamourous women of the Ziegfeld Follies. Well Smith certainly isn’t tall (her height is brilliantly made comical throughout), but she isn’t matronly by a long way and I thought the costumes had been designed deliberately to try and add some of that frumpiness. Or perhaps, they are simply unflattering outfits? Who’s to say?

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Fanny Brice – determined to be a star

As I found when I saw Gypsy this year, story-wise not that much really happens in Funny Girl (especially in the second half), but you don’t notice too much as you watch Michael Mayer’s production, mainly due to the strength of Smith’s performance, who kept my attention and emotional interest throughout. The latter certainly isn’t always a given. As someone who hasn’t seen any version of Funny Girl before, perhaps I enjoyed it more than some who can claim to have seen Streisand on stage (the lady in front of me for example), but overall I thought this was a wonderfully entertaining, uplifting production. I came out of the theatre smiling, which isn’t always guaranteed and I would definitely recommend a trip to see it if you can. Early on, Fanny sings how she’s going to be the greatest star. As Sheridan Smith’s experience and career continue to grow, I think that’s certainly going to be the case for her.

Funny Girl continues its run at the Menier Chocolate Factory until 5th March 2016. Tickets keep popping up online a few days in advance, so keep watching the website here or try for returns on the day. Its run at the Savoy Theatre starts on 9th April until 10th September 2016. For more details of the West End transfer, visit the website here.

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