reviewed in Southend on 19 June (preview)
An old theatrical cliché has the understudy taking over from the leading lady and stealing the show. Natasha J Barnes is not precisely an understudy – she alternated with Sheridan Smith during the London run of this musical version of the Fanny Brice story, and won plaudits – but the audience in Southend knows a superb performance when one is placed before it, and responded.
Barnes inhabits the role completely, both physically and psychologically. Her face becomes that of a woman who found out the hard way when still a young girl that she was never going to be pretty. So she compensated by developing her comedy talents, controlling and turning mockery into applause. I imagine that many a court jester developed the same carapace. While Barnes shows us this feisty side of Brice, she also makes the woman’s vulnerability clear.
This is particularly noticeable in her scenes with Darius Campbell’s Nick Arnstein, the suave gambler and con man who sweeps her into a marriage in which he demands freedom and she cannot give it wholeheartedly. Both sing well and make Bob Merrill’s lyrics and Jule Styne’s score an integral part of Michael Meyer’s production. There are also a very good performance from Joshua Lay as Eddie Ryan, who helps Fanny through an almost unspoken love for her.
Myra Sands, Zoë Ann Bown and Rachel Izen make a marvellous trio of New York Jewish ladies of a certain age and there a good cameos by Michael Callaghan as Mr Keeney and Nigel Barber as impressario Ziegfeld. The dancers are versatile and show off Lynne Page’s choreography as well as Matthew Wright’s quick-change costumes. Michael Pavelka’s asymmetrical set frames it all splendidly with Mark Henderson’s lighting and projections adding place and time.
Four and a half-star rating.
Funny Girl runs at the Cliffs Pavilion, Southend until 24 June with matinées on 21 and 24 June. It is also at the Theatre Royal, Norwich between 26 June and 1 July.