★★★★★

Venue: Birmingham Hippodrome

Production Run: Mon 8 - Sat 13 May 2017

Performance Reviewed: Tue 9 May (Press Night)

 

Early on in Funny Girl, Sheridan Smith’s Fanny Brice makes one of her signature deadpan quips about receiving her first ‘standing ovation’. She’s being wry; it turns out it was just a questionable type in a trench coat standing up at the rear of the stalls, but the chipper comedienne pegs it as a sign of things to come. Bleeding back into reality, we’re only in the second number of the show and already Smith as Brice has the actual audience already yearning to follow said trench coat’s example. In fact, within even minutes, it’s clear that Girl - and indeed it’s leading girl - are bringing something very special back to the stage indeed.

 

Styne, Merrill and Lennard’s reimagining of the life of Brice has done great things for many talents before; this is the musical that catapulted Barbra Streisand to Oscar glory, after all. As a vehicle for the demonstrably talented Sheridan Smith then, this celebrated revival from Michael Mayer, with a sheen of wit and polish from the revisionist pen of Harvey Fierstein, comes pretty close to encapsulating real musical theatre magic. And, with Smith’s Brice, we are delivered what is almost impossible to disregard as anything other than a truly seminal performance - one that comfortably sits alongside the likes of Imelda Staunton’s Mama Rose and other recent, instantly-iconic turns. 

 

Even taking into consideration its real life heritage, Funny Girl tells a fairly routine story of its 1960’s big musical origins and pedigree. Fanny Brice (Smith) is a girl with big dreams backed up by the talent to take her there. Along her journey to success, though, she’ll be dealt that ever distracting and difficult hand of love, and the complications of wanting to be more than just a ‘funny girl’. So far, so safe. The focus gradually shifts, then, from the genuine humour and bonhomie of the opening and much of the first act, to a slightly more serious, sombre and exploratory second. Love and marriage and the pursuit of happiness. In fact, having already cited Staunton, there are plenty of echoes to the likes of Gypsy both narratively and thematically, not least of all come the show’s powerhouse, down-but-not-defeated, show stopping whopper of a solo finale.

 

So whilst Girl doesn’t even attempt to reinvent the wheel when it comes to a fairly traditional approach to musical theatre storytelling, what it does do is refine said wheel to near perfection. Brice is, unsurprisingly, the pivotal cog here - the character is a true treasure of a role. Completely self-effacing and irrepressibly quirky, Smith is transfixing in the role from the moment she appears. Parading around with the effortless comic timing and impeccable instincts and nuance of, say, a young Patricia Routledge, Smith’s work here is easily as good as you may have heard. But the plaudits don’t end there - come the second Act in particular, when Brice’s circumstances take a turn for the decidedly not so funny, Smith knocks it out of the park with an equally affecting and believable dramatic turn. It’s somehow simultaneously an incredibly showy and completely understated performance at once - the mark of a truly brilliant talent in complete control of her material.

 

Smith is ably abetted by a superb company, including a charming and suitably smooth supporting turn from Darius Campbell (remember Pop Idol?) as freewheeling love interest Nick Arnstein, and a wider cast that includes great work from the likes of Joshua Lay and Rachel Izen as the friend and mother who ‘taught her everything she knows’. The whole ensemble are a treat though; see Lloyd Davies and Peter Nash shine in bit parts and join the ensemble in bringing West End-worthy footwork and talent to the major numbers as a collective.

 

And if Funny Girl is to be remembered as the consummate slice of musical theatre ambrosia that it will no doubt endure as, it will be in no small part thanks to the rich set design and lighting work of Simon Gooding and Mark Henderson. Matthew Wright’s costume design, for sure, too - for this is a production that looks, sounds and feels every inch classical musical theatre opulence. In fact, there’s very little at all to critique here; the entire thing feels effortlessly, intricately plucked from the era and restored with nary a buckle or bulb out of place. 

 

In fact, it’s a precedent that holds true to Funny Girl as a whole. Style and Merrill’s score remains as delightful and infectious as ever - few will be able to resist those signature bars of ‘Don’t Rain On My Parade’ or ‘People’ on their journeys home, and this time round the innate comedy of the likes of ‘You Are Woman, I Am Man’ and ‘Rat-Tat-Ta-t-Tat’ have been ratcheted up and writ large by Mayer and Fierstein. Smith’s solid and characterful vocals might not blow you away to the back of the auditorium a la Babs or Lupone, but chances are her beautiful instincts for character and laugh-out-loud grip on the comedy will.

 

Funny Girl is simply the thing musical theatre dreams are made of, not just from the perspective of being a beautifully revived centrepiece for one of the industries most iconic and rewarding roles, but even just as a production that soars so high across-the-board. It’s conventional in ways an audience will love and take comfort in, and is rich in both heritage and sound. But above all this, it is in the shows very own funny girl that it really finds its greatness. Smith is a revelation, a cornucopia of comedic flourish, her Fanny Bryce the best argument yet for her being one of the most gifted talents of her generation.

 

‘What Do Happy People Do’? They see Funny Girl at the earliest possible opportunity.

 

RATING - ★★★★★

Tickets: 0844 338 5000​  / Official Website: click​

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