The Savoy Theatre is currently completing the most enviable of hat tricks. Last year it staged Gypsy, which featured an outstanding turn from Imelda Staunton as Rose, its recent production of Guys and Dolls has just transferred to the Phoenix Theatre, and now Sheridan Smith’s performance as Fanny Brice in Funny Girl is ensuring that it has the third hit in a row on its hands.
While the previous two musicals both started life at the Chichester Festival, Funny Girl comes straight from the Menier Chocolate Factory, and, while Jule Styne, Bob Merrill and Isobel Lennart’s creation is rightly acclaimed as a classic, it does not quite surpass the other two works. It lacks the same ensemble dynamic as Guys and Dolls where there are a plethora of principal parts, while the tensions between the two leads are not rendered as imaginatively as in Gypsy where it is not the star, but the one who put her where she is, who comes across as the strongest character.
Nevertheless, it is still a magnificent show, and Michael Mayer’s production proves highly slick and effective. The stage sees a series of Art Deco frames, which tie in with the theatre’s interior, run one behind the other so that the sides to each create the wings. These in turn can be covered in patterns or turn into mirrors so that people standing in the wings feel multiplied out to create a sense of heightened activity. The backdrop depicts an auditorium with footlights, so that after Fanny performs outwards to us, she takes her bow to the back to put the seal on her act. Two conveyor belts run across the stage so that a montage revealing how both Fanny and Nick jet set across the world sees them moving in opposite directions along them, typically with entourages carrying their luggage. The conveyor belt is also cleverly used to capture the sense of an entire revue show occurring in a matter of minutes. A chorus of dancing girls kick their legs while travelling along it before Eddie bursts on to provide his main act.
The orchestra, under the direction of Theo Jamieson, is in fine form, and the extent to which the pit is beneath the stage with hardly anything protruding beyond it feels vaguely reminiscent of Bayreuth. In fact, a small arch is cut from the front of the stage to enable the conductor to see his music and the players, although this also shows that the pit does not have the same depth as that of the Festspielhaus.
Sheridan Smith’s performance as Fanny Brice has to rank as a truly exceptional one. She is required to present two personae, one of the character as she performs on stage and the other as a real person off it. In her acts she makes Fanny genuinely hilarious, and even as we become acutely aware of the intelligence required to be that funny, we also feel as if Fanny’s wit and stage presence are natural extensions of herself rather than contrived or false concoctions. Smith’s attention to detail is staggering, and she writes into Fanny’s routines those little laughs at her own actions that Eric Morecambe also inserted to give the impression that he was even surprising himself in doing what he did.
Smith is no less effective in portraying Fanny off-stage. She keeps up a ‘goofy’ accent all evening without ever making it feel laboured and, relative to the fact that musical theatre can so often be about flamboyance, seldom indulges in histrionics. She presents a person who in one sense appears to be nervous and thinking on her feet as she bumbles her way through conversation, and yet who keeps up such a constant stream of talk that she creates the overall effect of being very slick with her words. Occasionally she flips to a deeper voice for various ‘asides’, while her attempts at jests to lighten the mood at the most serious of moments also contribute to the overall effect, not least because they do not always succeed in their aim. Smith has an excellent voice, and, while she essentially maintains Fanny’s accent as she sings, she does so skilfully so that alongside the large numbers such as ‘Don’t Rain on my Parade’ she brings a deep sensitivity to ‘People’.
Darius Campbell is a commanding presence as Nick Arnstein, although, despite winning the ITV competition Popstar to Operastar, his voice does not consistently shine throughout. When, however, it really opens out it does prove as smooth as the rest of his persona. Joel Montague as Eddie Ryan also sings and dances to good effect, but after Smith the most accomplished performances come from the trio of older women: Marilyn Cutts as Fanny’s mother, Gay Soper as Mrs Strakosh and Valda Aviks as Mrs Meeker. It may be that, despite the strengths of the staging and the rest of the cast, this Funny Girl would not be half the show that it is without Smith, but with her contribution the evening is definitely worth experiencing. At the curtain call Smith received a virtually universal standing ovation, and if this performance was not worthy of that, then I do not know one that could ever be.