I’ve been a huge fan of Sheridan Smith since her days in Runcorn-based sitcom Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps. I had a proper crush on Gaz (Will Mellor – still do) and loved Smith’s character, Janet, with her quick one-liners, tracksuits and signature high ponytail. Then came Rudy, the younger sister to James Cordon’s affable Smithy in BBC’s popular series, Gavin and Stacey. Their hilarious rendition of Kanye and Estelle’s American Boy narrated down the telephone to best mate Gavin is still one of my favourite scenes.
It was evident that Smith was destined for great things. Her comic timing is always on point and there’s something about her that attracts the respect of the audience. It’s not just Smith’s undeniable talent, but a type of down-to-earthiness which makes it impossible not to find her fantastic. Not to mention that she is a dog-lover which says everything.
It’s apt that British stage favourite Smith was picked to play Fanny Brice and then reprise the role in the UK tour of Funny Girl, the (mostly) true story of the rise and first marriage of the famous Broadway Vaudeville star. It’s the perfect role. A mixture of comic genius (Fanny’s witty asides and facial expressions have me in stitches) and gut-wrenching emotion, the role showcases the spectrum of Smith’s acting, singing and dancing ability.
Like Smith, Fanny Brice was a gifted comic and singer. Famously, she possessed the unique ability to deliver both searing comedy and serious songs with great talent. She could switch between being funny and being solemn as easily as shedding a layer of clothes. The role calls for an energetic leading lady and Smith doesn’t disappoint.
“She must have a considerable amount of energy and stamina,” my friend Ayesha says as we exit the theatre. “She’s in almost every scene.”
I’m exhausted watching Smith. She delivers a vigorous performance full of brilliant, well-timed comedy and deeply impressive human emotion. Having to see-saw between seriousness and light-heartedness is a notably impressive and admirable skill.
But enough fan-girling. On to the show.
The weather is on form in Manchester as I arrive at the Palace Theatre. In a scene that could be right out of a Smith comedy, the red carpet is being duct-taped down so it doesn’t fall victim to Storm Doris. Despite the gathering wind, the mood is excitable and the audience spans generations. As we find our seats in the stalls, I look around. To my left there’s a group of young-ish girls, dressed-up and giggling. To the right is an older lady, I am guessing around mid-80s, and perhaps a fan of the original 1964 musical.
Already aware of the Oscar-winning 1968 film starring Barbra Streisand (I love The Streisand), I’m eager to see it on stage for the first time. Originally created by the Menier Chocolate Factory in 2015, Funny Girl went on to have an extremely successful run at the Savoy Theatre in 2016, and is now touring the UK with Smith back as Fanny Brice.
Despite a rather long-winded opening sequence – although I love a good orchestral piece, I quickly tired of the flashing microphone behind the curtain – the story is punchy, quick paced and, certainly during the first half, lots of fun.
“It’s very jolly isn’t it,” Ayesha whispers to me in delight.
And it is. Jolly is an excellent word to describe it. I keep the revelation of the darker side of the tale firmly under wraps.
If A Girl Isn’t Pretty is an excellent first song. Ayesha and I cast glances at each other, rolling our eyes at the sexist lyrics of the Keener troupe, but we know it doesn’t matter because Brice is so much more than a preening chorus girl. Her first feature number I’m The Greatest Star is quirky and sweet, but also showcases some serious pipes and cements Smith’s ability to belt out a tune or two.
By the time Chris Peluso comes on the scene as swoon-worthy Nick Arnstein, I shoot a familiar ‘oh here we go’ look at Ayesha. The amusing tangents regarding his ‘beautiful name’ and, later, the hilarious rendition of You are Woman, I am Man is both fun and recognisable – we’ve all been there and we’re rooting for our beloved Fanny Grice to be wooed by the handsome Arnstein, despite our better judgement.
For me, the stand out songs of the evening were People which was delivered with such power and emotion that it bought a bit of a tear to this single-girl’s eye. But the showstopper, of course, was the storming Don’t Rain on My Parade. I can’t decide which version I like best – the hopeful, bright rendition before curtain fall, or when Smith reprises this for the finale, depicting a strong woman refusing to back down in the face of heartbreak.
Oh, who am I kidding? It’s the latter. She brings the house down.
It would be remiss of me not to mention that Smith and Peluso are supported by an extremely talented, albeit small, cast. Brice’s tale would not be complete without the mention of her strong support system, and roots, back in Brooklyn’s Henry Street. Both her mother, played by Rachel Izen, and delightfully funny busy-body neighbours, Mrs Strakosh (Myra Sands) and Mrs Meeker (Zoe Ann Bown) are portrayed with warmth and humour.
The cast are impressive. The Follies regularly switch between styles, mixing dance such as tap and ballet, with light humour, and I adored Joshua Lay as Eddy – cartwheeling in a suit is no mean feat. Despite knowing that, deep down, the shady, con-man, Nick Arnstein, loves his wife very deeply, I still wish I could rewrite the tale. Urging Fanny to change her mind and hook up with her best friend.
The staging is simple but well executed. The use of mirrors reflecting characters who stand just off stage is effective and moving, particularly towards the end of the show when the tale edges into poignancy and reflection. Micheale Pavelka’s set is static, using props to mark the passage of time and change of scenery with ease. We’re transported to Fanny’s mother’s saloon, railway stations, hotel rooms, streets, and the stage. The show is set in Fanny’s dressing room at the Ziegfeld Follies and works as a series of flashbacks charting Fanny’s rise to fame and tumultuous relationship as she waits for her husband to return from jail.
The costumes are fantastic. From brightly coloured show-stoppers to everyday wear, the passing of time between 1910 to 1930 is well depicted (and gave me some serious outfit envy).
As I head to Piccadilly train station, battling against the beginning of Doris’ wrath, I can’t stop singing songs from the show. I skip through puddles and dodge the splash of passing cars, realising that if I wasn’t in a feel-good mood before, I am now. That’s what I want from a musical: lots of laughs, a good tune and the unshakeable feeling that you can do anything.
Funny Girl is at the Palace Theatre in Manchester until February 25, 2017. For more information, please click here.