Savoy Theatre, London
Circumstances have thrust Natasha J Barnes into playing the leading role of Fanny Brice in Michael Mayer’s production of Funny Girl, recently transferred from the Menier Chocolate Factory to the West End’s Savoy Theatre. The show has already been reviewed by www.jonathanbaz.com in both those venues – so this review is all about Barnes.
Quite simply, she is a stunning, revelatory astonishment. The role is huge, with the actress onstage almost throughout as she charts Brice’s rise from a self-confident Brooklyn kid to Broadway star. And it is in tracing Brice’s soaring arc, that Barnes herself soars. When we first meet her as the young Fanny, all knickerbockered and hopeful, Barnes to most of the audience, is an unknown performer – but as she sings I’m The Greatest Star, we catch a tiny glimpse of life imitating art as Barnes’ talent is revealed.
It’s not just her stunning voice that rises magnificently through the show’s two signature numbers People and Don’t Rain On My Parade – it is her ability to grasp the complexities of Brice’s life and play them convincingly. We believe in her childhood, we believe in her chutzpah and eventually, as Brice evolves into an older and ultimately wiser woman, we believe Barnes’ portrayal of Brice’s deepest love for the errant Nicky Arnstein and her formidable strength as she moves forward from a failed marriage.
Barnes captures the nuance, the poise, the comedy and the raw gutsy energy that epitomised Fanny Brice – and she brings back to the role the passion that was first (and last?) seen when Sheridan Smith opened this show at the Menier six months ago. Since then, Smith’s personal life has been desperately painful – and all too publicly too – and no-one would wish her a return to this most demanding of roles until she is fully fit.
But until Smith is ready to play Funny Girl again, she can at least be assured that the show is in safe hands. In a display of pure theatrical magic, Natasha J Barnes stuns us with her acting, touches our hearts with People and in closing both halves of the show with Don’t Rain On My Parade, makes spines tingle and hairs stand on end. Barbra Streisand may have created Fanny Brice, but Barnes’ take on the role reminds one of that other classic Streisand performance, A Star Is Born.
Funny Girl is booking until 8th OctoberPhoto credit: Manuel Harlan