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Mark Shenton: How did Sheridan Smith’s understudy fare in Funny Girl?

Natasha J Barnes Natasha Barnes is currently taking the lead role in Funny Girl to much acclaim
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I wasn’t planning on revisiting Funny Girl at the Menier Chocolate Factory: I’d seen it once already, the entire run was sold out, and I was happy to wait to see it again when it transferred to the Savoy Theatre. But then a friend offered me two tickets he was unable to use for last Thursday evening, and I grabbed them: why wouldn’t I want to see the glorious Sheridan Smith in the close quarters of the Menier? 

She’s one of our most amazing, intuitive and watchable actors alive today; a transfixing presence who you simply can’t take your eyes off.

As Michael Billington noted in his Guardian review when the show first opened at the Menier last December: “Barbra Streisand famously staked her claim to the title in the 1964 Broadway production and the 1968 movie. Now it’s the turn of Sheridan Smith and she brings to the role her own brand of exuberant mischief and spiritual warmth. Where audiences admired Streisand, they palpably adore Smith.”

But as was well publicised last week, Smith had to miss a number of performances following her father’s cancer diagnosis. Sometimes personal stuff comes ahead of showbusiness, and even if fans are inevitably going to be disappointed, it is entirely understandable that she should put her family first. (Smith personally tweeted disappointed fans to offer to exchange their tickets for the Savoy run.)

However, if Streisand’s shoes were big to fill for Smith, how now to fill her shoes? That was the daunting challenge facing her understudy Natasha J Barnes – but, to borrow Julian Marsh’s famous declaration to Peggy Sawyer in 42nd Street, she may have gone out an understudy but she came back a star.

She’s like a quirky, young Imelda Staunton, burning with a quiet intensity, heartbreakingly good acting and a singing voice that reminded me of the great, late Judy Garland.

It goes without saying that Smith was missed – but her absence allowed the show to reveal itself more fully and for her co-stars to reclaim some of the limelight. Smith is such a force of nature that you can’t look anywhere else whenever she’s around, even if she’s not centre stage herself; but actually this is a company of great ensemble strength, and the underrated Darius Campbell, who plays Fanny Brice’s hustler and gambler of a husband Nicky Arnstein, cuts a particularly affecting and dashing figure. If this show wasn’t transferring immediately to the Savoy, he’d have made the perfect replacement for Michael Xavier in another soon-transferring show, Show Boat from Sheffield to the New London Theatre: the roles of Arnstein and Gaylord Ravenal are nearly identical.

The show is also not a one-woman show in other departments, either – it may revolve around Fanny, but she is fantastically supported by the gorgeous trio of her mother and her mother’s friends (hilariously taken by Marilyn Cutts, Gay Soper and Valda Aviks), her producer Florenz Ziegfeld (warmly played by Bruce Montague), her rejected suitor Eddie Ryan (the wonderfully agile Joel Montague), and fellow dancers.

It is, of course, dangerous for any show to depend on its star casting as fully as a star vehicle such as Funny Girl does; but we must never forget the lesson of The Pajama Game, in which a young Shirley MacLaine was promoted out of the chorus to cover for Carol Haney who had sprained her ankle during a performance – and would become a much bigger star than Haney ever was.

I, for one, will never go home if the star is absent, ever since I made the mistake of doing so when the late Ian Charleson pulled out of his run as Hamlet at the National Theatre when he became too ill to continue – his understudy was Jeremy Northam.

Understudies are uniquely hungry for their moment in the spotlight – that’s what they’ve prepared for, after all. When a young Anthony Hopkins understudied Laurence Olivier in The Dance of Death at the National and took over from him, Olivier reported afterwards that he walked away with the part like a “cat with a mouse between its teeth”. But they also have to be braced for the audience’s disappointment: “I could feel these waves of hatred coming off of the audience,” Bebe Neuwirth said in a documentary about understudies called Standby, of when she took over from Debbie Allen in a Broadway revival of Sweet Charity in 1986.

There were actually empty seats at the Menier Chocolate Factory last week when Sheridan Smith didn’t appear, as people took the opportunity to be re-seated for when she was on. But it was their loss not to see Natasha J Barnes. Remember the name; you’ll be hearing it again.

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