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Sheridan Smith in Funny Girl – review round-up

Sheridan Smith in Funny Girl at the Savoy Theatre. Photo: Johan Persson
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When its first run went on sale in summer last year, Funny Girl tickets were gone in less than 12 hours, becoming the Menier Chocolate Factory’s fastest-selling show ever. This transfer to the West End’s Savoy Theatre was confirmed before the show had even opened, largely thanks to the talent and reputation of its star, Sheridan Smith.

Smith plays Fanny Brice, real-life star of Broadway revue shows at the turn of the last century, whose career was built on wit, personality and determination. Barbra Streisand originally took the role in the 1960s and, by the end of that decade, had immortalised Fanny on screen too. That performance was considered definitive for decades; this is the first major London production of Funny Girl since 1966.

Music is by Jule Styne, lyrics by Bob Merrill, and book by Isobel Lennart. This production is directed by Michael Mayer and choreographed by Lynne Page, with musical direction from Theo Jamieson. Darius Campbell, Joel Montague and Marilyn Cutts lead the supporting cast. Megan Vaughan rounds up the reviews.

Funny Girl – Streisand Schmeisand

Sheridan Smith in Funny Girl. Photo: Johan Persson
Sheridan Smith in Funny Girl. Photo: Johan Persson

There’s no doubt amongst the critics that Smith has big shoes to fill. Mark Shenton (London Theatre ★★★★★) observes that, in following Barbra Streisand’s seminal turn, she either has “a clean slate” or must wrestle with “an intimidating legacy”. On her success though, there is universal agreement. Jane Shilling (Telegraph ★★★★) writes that Smith’s portrayal of Fanny is “freshly-minted, as though she had no idea that Streisand had once created the role, half a century ago.”

Louise Schwartzkoff (Time Out ★★★★) writes that she has “all but banished the ghost of productions past”, Dominic Maxwell (Times ★★★★) cries “Streisand, Schmeisand”, and William J Connelly (Gay Times ★★★★★) is one of several who hail Smith as “one of the finest talents in the country”.

But if that wasn’t evidence enough, Steve Hogarty (City AM ★★★★★) is most emphatic of all: “If there were any lingering concerns about Sheridan Smith’s ability to fill the Streisand-sized boots of Fanny Brice in Funny Girl, they’re almost immediately dashed the moment she takes to the stage. They’re dashed and then dashed again, and then any remaining shreds of undashed concern are swept up in a little basket and hurled over a cliff to be dashed one last time.”

Funny Girl – in widescreen

Consensus is also reached on the shift in scale from Menier to Savoy. Tony Peters (Radio Times) says that the larger stage gives the production room “to breathe”, following it with praise for Lynne Page’s choreography: “routines are given a new energy and ensemble numbers don’t feel so crowded.”

Mark Shenton (The Stage ★★★★★) agrees. He notes that what “felt constrained before has now been unleashed”, highlighting the fact that Joel Montague, as Eddie, “doesn’t have to bump into the walls”. (Should hope not.)

It’s not just the space that’s got bigger in transfer. There is a larger company, and the set has been beefed up too. Douglas Mayo (British Theatre ★★★★★) mentions Michael Pavelka’s “astonishingly beautiful” design, and Fiona Mountford (Evening Standard ★★★★) finds resonance in its reflective backdrop: “Michael Mayer’s sassy production is reinforced by Michael Pavelka’s elegant, wistful design of a theatre, with rows of burnished mirrors running into the wings. Fanny is endlessly reflected back, but never quite in the image she’d like to see.”

Funny Girl – raining on her parade

Sherdian Smith and Joel Montague in Funny Girl. Photo: Johan Persson
Sherdian Smith and Joel Montague in Funny Girl. Photo: Johan Persson

You have look hard for anything negative in these reviews, but where it exists, it invariably regards the story that lies at the heart of the show. Louise Schwartzkoff doesn’t sugar the pill when she says: “There’s no getting around the fact that ‘Funny Girl’ is pretty thin on plot – even by the standards of musical theatre.”

The second half seems to fare worst. Victoria Thomas (The Londonist ★★★★) loved the performances but found that “the action feels slow post-interval”, while Jane Shilling felt that later scenes were “curiously equivocal about the reasons behind the collapse of her marriage”.

While Fiona Mountford may have found layers of meaning within the set, for her the emphasis on Fanny’s relationships was problematic: “I’ve always found it a pity that the main thrust of this look at Brice, a hugely talented and successful woman in an era where such specimens weren’t exactly thick on the ground, is her lovelorn love life.”

Funny Girl – so it is any good?

Definitely. It’s 4 or 5 stars from everyone, and raves for Sheridan Smith. Pretty much every response applauds her energy and comic timing, with Daisy Bowie-Sell (WhatsonStage ★★★★) saying this: “Smith keeps the gags up whether there’s a song involved or not and her double takes, the way she mutters to herself and her physical comedy – brilliantly on show in Lynne Page’s neat choreography in “You Are Woman, I Am Man” – make this a performance of a lifetime.”

In his review, Douglas Mayo is inspired to look beyond Funny Girl and to Smith’s future career, asking when she will be given the opportunity to create a new role from scratch, rather than filling the shoes of others: “the clarion call must go out to British composers and show-writers to create sensational shows for one of our greatest young stage stars.”

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