★★★★ | Funny Girl, Palace Theatre Manchester
In the opening lines of the show, Fanny Brice declares, ‘That’s where I live, on stage.’ In a rip-roaringly fantastic return to the show by Sheridan Smith; it’s impossible to believe she belongs anywhere else.
The narrative of Funny Girl lacks originality. The rags to riches rise to fame, peppered with a predictably turbulent love story. These are popular tropes of the post-war musical, and Funny Girl is no exception. Act one of Isobel Lennart’s book just about generates enough excitement to retain one’s interest in the story. Act two doesn’t fair too well in this department. Michael Pavelka’s sparse, asymmetrical set design left the stage feeling desolate at times. And, while some have interpreted the precariously tilted proscenium arch as a representation of Fanny’s life – I think it’s a metaphor too far for this light-hearted musical comedy. However, like many things in this production, the lack of dramatic pace and uninspiring set design dissipates in a heartbeat when Smith is on stage.
The show is an unapologetic star-vehicle for the lead role, which was popularised by Barbara Streisand in the 1969 film – an indisputably tough act to follow. But Funny Girl is the story of vaudevillian Fanny Brice, and her meteoric rise to fame in the Ziegfeld Follies – a story which has distinct echoes of the show’s star Sheridan Smith. Smith herself is fast becoming the doyen of British theatre, and with performances like this, the hype is more than justifiable.
She sings with ample vocal ability and dances with confidence and flair. But Smith is ostensibly an actress – and it is her sublime characterisation, which never falters, where her unique ability to captivate is most alive. Her character Fanny claims to have ’36 different expressions’. To say Smith has expression is to dilute the honesty of her performance. In the wrong hands this role can be two-dimensional, but Smith’s astute comic timing, palpable likeability and wholly believable vulnerability chimes the chord of truth every second she is on stage.
The ensemble also gave a solid performance, and orchestra was in fine shape too. The same could not be said for my legs after being sat in the grand tier of the Palace Theatre in Manchester for three hours. I normally give the note: ‘restricted legroom’ a perfunctory glance and have no problem. I think, the tangible desire for the audience to jump to their feet was to congratulate Smith on a stellar performance – but the audible sigh of relief from my fellow grand tier survivors leaves one to wonder. Seat issues aside: a star was not born at the Palace Theatre this week, but rather cemented into history as one of our most talented leading ladies.