Playhouse, Edinburgh – until 22 April 2017
Guest reviewer: Hugh Simpson
Tuneful and comedically brilliant, Sheridan Smith truly shines in the touring production of Funny Girl, at the Playhouse until Saturday. The story of Ziegfeld Follies star Fanny Brice, and her doomed romance with gambling playboy Nick Arnstein, is best known for the film version. The 1968 movie made a Hollywood star of the 1964 Broadway musical’s lead, Barbra Streisand, and added songs associated with Brice to the Jule Styne and Bob Merrill numbers from the stage show.
This version from Chocolate Factory Productions returns to the original – with some updates – and is now touring after an acclaimed West End run. Much of the publicity has centred on Sheridan Smith in the central role, and she surely deserves all of the praise that continues to come her way.
Perhaps she does not have the strongest voice ever heard, but she can certainly invest a song with emotion – and it is refreshing to hear People sung in such a tender, comparatively low-key way. And she can certainly belt it out when called upon, with Don’t Let It Rain On My Parade closing the first half with maximum energy.
It is as an all-round presence, however, that she really shines. She milks the most unpromising situations for utmost effect, and her performances in Brice’s featured Ziegfeld numbers manage to convince us why a now obscure figure was such a massive Broadway star. The knowing glances, outrageous expressions and comic asides might seen overdone in a lesser performer, but we are in the hands here of someone who is completely in control of the material and has a magnificent rapport with the audience.
Smith is such a star in the role that it tends to bring the shortcomings of the production into sharper focus; while this is undoubtedly very good, it stops short of being a classic. Part of this is undoubtedly down to the original musical, as the reasons why it has not often been revived are plain to see.
Many of the best songs (such as the two already mentioned) seem to come out of nowhere and have little to do with Fanny’s character. The second act goes nowhere, at no great speed, with the events leading to Fanny and Nick’s break-up then dealt with in an oddly cursory way. Since the story onstage is not exactly faithful to the source – Arnstein’s earlier jail time and Fanny’s first husband are never mentioned – this is hardly unavoidable.
There remains a terrible problem with Nick’s character. Even with the aid of the cleaned-up version of the real-life conman presented here – and of Harvey Fierstein’s revised version of Isobel Lennart’s book – he comes across as immature, selfish and entirely unworthy of either such devotion or such extensive stage time. Couching the story of an extremely successful female performer largely in terms of her mooning over a likeable rogue, moreover, now appears well beyond the realms of the quaintly old-fashioned.
Darius Campbell, reprising his London performance as Nick for this leg of the tour, is a great deal better than many would expect. Few performers can have worked harder to transform their public image, and he certainly brings the appropriate level of dashing, handsome charm.
Vocally, he is an excellent fit for Smith, and their duets, particularly Who Are You Now?, have considerable emotional punch. However, he does not quite have the chops to carry off the West End leading man persona, and in this regard the reinstatement of Nick’s song-and-dance feature Temporary Arrangement to the show does him few favours.
There are some endearing performances elsewhere in a large cast. Joshua Lay provides hangdog comedy and effervescent tap as Fanny’s long-time choreographer, confidant and admirer Eddie Ryan. Rachel Izen as Mrs Brice, and Myra Sands and Zoe Ann Bown as her two cronies Mrs Strakosh and Mrs Meeker, are particularly effective.
Much of the production – Michael Pavelka’s layered set, Lynne Page’s peppy choreography, Michael Mayer’s knowing direction – can be categorised as extremely accomplished without having that bit of extra sparkle that makes a five-star show.
There is one moment towards the end, when Mark Henderson’s lighting suddenly becomes eerily sepulchral, accompanied by increasingly stylised movements from the ensemble, that the atmosphere is suddenly ratcheted up several notches, and we can see what has been missing.
However, the production is never less than bright and breezy, and serves very well to highlight a central performance that is undoubtedly worth going to see.