Natasha J Barnes lived the showbiz fairytale of going out as an understudy for Funny Girl and returning a West End star. She tells Mark Shenton about taking on one of the hardest parts in musical theatre, life imitating art and how she deals with nerves
One of the most famous lines in musical theatre is spoken by stage director Julian Marsh to understudy Peggy Sawyer in 42nd Street. “You’re going out a youngster,” he tells her, “but you’ve got to come back a star.”
This stuff of showbiz fairytales occasionally happens in real life. Shirley MacLaine stepped out of the chorus and into the lead role in The Pajama Game after its star, Carol Haney, sprained an ankle. A young Anthony Hopkins stood in for Laurence Olivier in The Dance of Death at the National Theatre. Olivier would later say the younger man “walked away with the part like a cat with a mouse between its teeth”.
It also happened to Natasha J Barnes. In 2016, as understudy for the lead role in Funny Girl at the Menier Chocolate Factory in London, she was thrust into the spotlight after its star Sheridan Smith was forced to withdraw late in the run.
“I was an actress who hadn’t been rehearsed, running on stage and thinking: ‘I’ve got to be in the right place at the right time’,” she recalls. “I’d done bits and pieces in rehearsals, but I never did it all the way through. I didn’t even know if my voice could do all those songs, but I did it.”
After the show transferred to the West End’s Savoy Theatre, she went on again – for nearly two months – when Smith took another unscheduled break. The understudy’s rise to fame was a story that went nationwide.
“You have the opportunity and you seize it or you don’t,” she says. “But it was only because I was such a fan of Sheridan Smith’s that I was able to do what I did, because I had watched her intently. It was a masterclass.”
• Try a little bit of everything, no matter how much it scares you. If you hate tap, go to a tap class. I wish I’d done ballet and tap.
• See everything, read everything, hear everything.
• Be yourself. Don’t get in the way of yourself. You are who you are. Be the best version you can be and don’t try to change for anybody. Casting directors smell it, so you have to be yourself. A friend of mine books almost every job he goes in for, because he has this incredible habit of being himself, no matter how he is feeling that day. People love him for that; they want to work with the real you, not a fake.
She also cites Imelda Staunton as a major influence on her and when Funny Girl transferred to the Savoy, it followed immediately after her idol had performed Momma Rose there in Gypsy.
Watching the 2015 revival was a powerful experience, Barnes says. “I was embarrassingly sobbing, the sort you don’t want to do in front of people. And I thought, one day maybe I can do that… give me 25 years!”
It would not even be one year. “I’m performing on a stage where I’d been to see Gypsy a few months earlier, watching her – the big her,” Barnes says, “and suddenly I’m there trying to come up to that standard.”
‘When I was working out how to perform Funny Girl, I imagined what Imelda Staunton would do, and then did that’
Barnes has never met Staunton – “I think I’d melt into a puddle on the floor” – but she has carefully studied her performances. “She does so little and yet it is so much. I took bits of that for the final moments of Funny Girl, where I’m sitting on stage alone at a dressing room table. I thought: ‘Imelda Staunton would do nothing’, so I did nothing, and just said the words.”
Audiences already had preconceived ideas about the role because of Barbra Streisand, who first created it on Broadway and then in the subsequent film version, and Smith. But Barnes says: “I can just go in there without an ounce of ego and tell the story.”
Stepping into Smith’s shoes was a tough act to follow. “Performing [I’m the] Greatest Star to an audience that isn’t prepared for you is probably one of the biggest challenges I’ve ever had,” Barnes says. “You are also telling the audience you are the greatest star, which is a bit of a psychological drama in itself.”
On the current tour of Funny Girl, she is sharing the role with Smith at pre-announced dates, so audiences at least know who they should be seeing. But Barnes had to cover again for five weeks when Smith had the mumps.
“I’d got used to people knowing it was me – I was on the poster and in the programme and it was expected; but now I had to go out again and think: ‘If I can just get them won over with [the song] People, I’ll be all right.’ ”
Barnes got her first paid acting gig when she was just 10-years-old in a radio version of Alice Through the Looking Glass. Growing up, the only training she had was at a local theatre school in Bournemouth, about 20 minutes from her family home.
At 17, she was offered a place at Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts, but she deferred it as she was unable to secure a grant. “I was going to take a year out, work at Waitrose and see as much theatre as I could, then try to apply for a grant again,” Barnes says. “But then I went to auditions for Spring Awakening just for the audition experience.”
She got her first professional theatre job as a result, appearing in the original cast with young actors including Lucy May Barker, Evelyn Hoskins, Charlotte Wakefield, Aneurin Barnard and Iwan Rheon. It was directed by Michael Mayer, who would go on to direct Funny Girl.
“He picked me up and put me somewhere where I would only have dreamed of being. I would probably still be 10 years away if I hadn’t walked into that room and met him when I was 17.”
What was your first non-theatre job?
At a stables; I mucked out horses on Sunday mornings.
What was your first professional theatre job?
Alice Through the Looking Glass for BBC radio.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
Not to try to be anyone else. Just be the best version of who you are. Don’t try to fit into any box.
Who were your biggest influences?
Judy Garland and Imelda Staunton.
What’s your best advice for auditions?
If you feel under-confident, pick up the script one more time. Always look at the work, because that’s where the confidence comes from, knowing inside what you have to do.
If you hadn’t been an actor, what would you have been?
A vet. I love animals. I have an Alaskan malamute, two cats and I did have a horse, but he went blind so he’s in a sanctuary now.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
In Funny Girl, my stage manager is not allowed to wear his glasses. Whenever he does and not his contact lenses, things go wrong. And I have a picture of Fanny Brice that I will probably take to every show I do from now on, which I got from Paul O’Grady when I did panto with him at the London Palladium last year.
The newspapers love a 42nd Street-style success story, but Barnes struggled with the attention when she first stood in for Smith. “I wasn’t ready for the paps in my face,” she says. “I was on stage and life was imitating art. There’s a line that Eddie says: ‘You’ve been in the papers almost every day,’ and it happened to be that week when I was on the front page of the Daily Mail. Somewhere behind the character, I was laughing.”
As well as the professional challenge of having to learn such an iconic role in the spotlight, Barnes was having a tough time personally. “It is one of hardest roles in musical theatre and unless you’re Imelda Staunton and have years and years behind you of knowing how to do that, it’s a huge psychological challenge,” she says, adding that a four-year relationship broke down around the same time. “I was on stage living out my break-up. It was very strange.”
‘The fact that Sheridan Smith came back to Funny Girl meant it had a happy ending. If she hadn’t, I wouldn’t have felt good about it’
Having overcome the challenges and, as well as enjoying the role on tour, Barnes has found that one happy side-effect to playing Fanny Bryce is the inspiration it is to young women. “It’s amazing with Funny Girl how many young girls you get at stage door saying: ‘I’m a bit chubby, or I’m spotty, or I have frizzy hair and I never fitted in, but now I’m going to give it a go.’ That’s really nice.”
Barnes is also glad that Smith has been able to return for the tour. “The fact that she came back means it got a happy ending, otherwise I wouldn’t have felt good about it. I didn’t feel good about it at the time to be honest – I felt fraught and worried and wanted it to end well for everyone.” She added that Smith has been hugely supportive of her.
Recently, Barnes was offered a place at the Royal Academy of Music, but work, on the tour, again intervened.
And now another new and unexpected opportunity has come up: she is in the middle of recording her first album for Sony. “I’m doing something that is completely my own now,” she says.
It includes covers of northern soul B-sides that didn’t quite become hits, a new song written by Rebecca Ferguson, a runner-up on The X Factor, and – of course – a number from Funny Girl.
The rising star is constantly setting herself new challenges and experiences. Asked how she deals with nerves or rejection, she says: “I pick up a play or learn a new song, something that makes me better at my job.
“Rather than sitting worrying about it, I’ll go and see something that inspires me, like paying £5 to stand for the Sam Mendes’ King Lear, which I did a couple of years ago. I was fed something, and I felt better at my job the next day.”
Born: 1989, Poole
Training: Attended Big Little Theatre School in Bournemouth as a child on Saturday mornings
Landmark productions: Spring Awakening, Lyric Hammersmith, then Novello Theatre, London (2009); I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky, Theatre Royal Stratford East, London (2010); Lend Me a Tenor, Gielgud Theatre, London (2011); American Idiot, Arts Theatre, London, then UK tour (2015); Funny Girl, Menier Chocolate Factory, London (2015); Savoy Theatre, London (2016); UK tour (2017); Cinderella, London Palladium (2016)
Awards: West End Wilma award for best understudy for Funny Girl, 2016
Agent: James Beresford at Shepherd Management
Natasha J Barnes is starring in Funny Girl at the Wolverhampton Grand Theatre until July 29, and Theatre Royal Plymouth from August 1-5. Her first single Supermodel will be released in the autumn