Benet Catty Productions

Funny Girl (WE 2016)

Feb 17, 2016

Menier Chocolate Factory

The Menier Chocolate Factory has been punching above its weight in the London theatre scene for over ten years. Holding less than 200 seats, it has transferred productions to the West End repeatedly, from Sondheim's Sunday in the Park with George, A Little Night Music and Merrily We Roll Along to the current Bacharach songbook Close to You. Some, like the first two of these and the tremendous The Colour Purple, have gone on to Broadway.

Funny Girl had 'hit' written all over it from the moment it was announced. The entire Menier run sold out in record time and the transfer to the Savoy Theatre (which begins on April 9th) was announced before it opened and has already extended its run twice. There's even been talk of this in turn moving to New York.

There are two reasons for the buzz. One is the smash hit success of Gypsy last year at the same West End address, with which Funny Girl shares both its authors and - more or less - its subject, namely the pitfalls of the showbiz life on love and relationships. And the other, greater, reason is the name above the title: Sheridan Smith.

Barbara Streisand remains synonymous with the role and the show's original success (it has in fact never been revived since). Smith is perhaps the most in-demand actress in Britain as well being genuinely a very funny girl. Everyone agreed that she is Streisand's worthy successor in this most plum of roles.

The trouble with this immaculate package is really only one thing: the show itself. Funny Girl, sad to report, is not a good musical. It has many good songs but that is not the same thing. Gypsy is a great musical. Funny Girl has lots of good moments in it but it scarcely reaches into the good category.

It's a roughly biographical telling of the life of Fanny Brice, the comedienne and Broadway star, and to a lesser extent her misplaced devotion to a charming but unreliable man. In subject and tone, the show sits at the crossroads between Gypsy and Sweet Charity.

The London critics have agreed that the problems are all in the second act but they're not quite right: there are fewer great songs in the second act, true, but dramatically the piece is scarcely more impressive in the warmer first half. The writing isn't funny, the character is not intrinsically interesting (Smith is, but that's a different point) and the key relationship with charming-but-fallible Nick Amstein is extraordinarily under-developed. He woos her, he leaves her and he comes back - all in three scenes.

If there is anybody who can make her lover come to life then Darius Campbell (formerly Danesh - we know who you are, Darius) is not the guy. A pleasing baritone and an attractive retro-hunk look can only get you so far, as Trevor Nunn discovered when he cast him as Rhett Butler in the infamous flop musical Gone with the Wind. Patrons of the more recent Tim Rice flop From Here to Eternity already know that Danesh coudn't act scared on a South London street corner at 3 in the morning. So Smith has to do all the work for him.
Michael Mayer, the director who brought such brilliant vision to the under-rated American musical of Spring Awakening and the ear-drum splitting American Idiot, settles for middle of the road ordinariness here with the changes of time insufficiently clear, the visual interest low and the dramatic stakes invisible.

None of this is aided by the dull ordinariness of Lynne Page's choreography or the ugly clutter of Michael Pavelka's set, although one could well imagine that in the larger spaces of the Savoy both of these elements may be shown off to much greater effect.

But even if this is so - and I suspect it is - Funny Girl is a show with less to it the more one looks for it. If you remember it at all it'll be because of Barbara Streisand's voice, or because of one of the two stand-out songs which will always be associated with her: "People" and "Don't Rain on My Parade". Between them they cover six minutes. The show runs 2hr 40.

It's a shame because Sheridan Smith is one of our great actresses, both comic and serious: hilarious in Legally Blonde (for which she won an Olivier), tragic in Flare Path (for which she won another), mature in Hedda Gabler. But sadly for the second time in a row following Michael Grandage's messy production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, Smith finds herself in a vehicle unworthy of her talents.

We're famously told midway through act one "People who need people are the luckiest people in the world". Well, I'm afraid I really didn't need this show.

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