“…I’m the greatest star by far” singings Sheridan Smith as Fanny Brice, “And no-one knows it- WAIT!” Wait indeed because there is no denying it Sheridan as Fanny in the Bristol Hippodrome run of musical Funny Girl is truly the greatest star by far.
From the moment the curtain lifted, and Sheridan’s kooky physical comedy, rich Brooklyn-Yiddish accent and achingly beautiful vocals shone out from the stage everyone in the audience knew this was the performance of a star.
Funny Girl is after all the story of the rising fame of stage comedic singer Fanny Brice who goes from her mother’s saloon on Henry Street Brooklyn to Broadway despite being initially rejected for not being ‘pretty like a Miss Atlantic City’. When she finally gains her chance to perform on stage thanks to her musical director friend Eddie (Joshua Lay) her talent, timing, innate comedy, and voice win over the audience and so begins her meteoric rise.
It is a life lived on a stage, as Fanny herself states; she is always performing whether it is for the Broadway audiences or her loved ones including love interest Nick Arnstein (played by Chris Peluso). To reinforce this point of a life of constant performance Michael Pavelka’s set has Fanny perpetually framed against the ever-present backdrop of the wonky mirror image of the Palace theatre. Continually surrounded by audiences. Never out of the spotlight.
Indeed Smith is never off stage in her role as Brice, and it is no small wonder that during the West End run of Funny Girl Smith had to take a break from the role due to exhaustion. Her performance is relentless, there are nuances and small details of character, physicality, movement that may go unnoticed but without them Fanny would have remained 2-dimension, just a caricature of a ‘hollering’, frumpy Jewish girl with big dreams. Instead Smith’s ability to encapsulate herself in the character, means that alongside the cheeky winks and wacky dance moves, there is humanity and heart in the character.
This was particularly evident in the more serious emotional scenes of the play. First, there is the moment when Fanny visits the hotel of her beau Nick and behind a veil of self-aware comedy and steely indifference she hides the fear that Nick’s interest in her is not genuine and that she does not the aesthetic appeal to capture such a man. It is a duality that Smith performances sublimely, the audience laugh and titter with her and her worldly woman facade whilst their hearts simultaneously bleed for this fabulous and vulnerable woman. When she finally succumbs to Nick’s advances there is a cheer that she has got her man, and also a held breath as we wait in fear to see if he is really a bad egg.
But for me the final scene between these two characters has to be the stand out moment for Smith, as we watch her throw on the mask of acceptance and steely resolve, telling Nick she not only agrees with him but had too thought it was time to ‘call it a day’. There is no begging or bargaining, just that indelible dignity. Then as she rallies herself from the tears that flow after Nick exits, it is a truly fist pumping moment of female empowerment. Fanny calls on her inner strength as she steels herself for her waiting audience, in the only way a true showgirl can meeting her eye in the mirror uttering those immortal words “Hello Gorgeous” and then launching a building rendition of the musicians iconic number ‘Don’t rain on my parade’.
As Smith belts out the last note, her arm punching into the arm, striking a pose of resilience and defiance you are cheering for her.
And whilst this is not a one-woman show the other actors, chorus members, staging, orchestra all faultless in their execution are like the Palace theatre backdrop, a frame against which Smith’s talent is allowed to shine.
The roles of Fanny’s mother played by Rachel Izen, and her poker playing companions Mrs Meeker (Zoe Ann Bown) and Mrs Strakosh (Myra Sands) were well handled and provided a great deal of warmth and sense of place.
Slightly more out of place was the character of Nick. Actor Chris Peluso was not entirely convincing in the role of devilish cad about town and I didn’t find myself swooning over him as easily as Fanny did. Though he did rise considerably in my estimations when in the scene in the hotel suite he accused Fanny of behaving like a child. And whilst the fatal flaw in their relationship is his sense of being choked by her success as his own ambitions dry up and are swept away which should feel a little dated it does still hold a ring a truth in this modern age. And Peluso’s sensitive handling of a man diminished kept the character from falling into a historical parody.
Ultimately this is a show of fine performances, sleek production (the sleekest I have seen at the Hippodrome besides the English National Ballet’s production of Giselle) with a stand-out turn from a national treasure, who has managed to eclipse the mighty Streisand and make the role of Fanny her own.
The standing ovation at the end was more than deserved, and whilst the Hippodrome crowd is often too quick to their feet in this instance I was one of the first to my feet, and had cheered and whooped throughout the performance.
As you watch this performance even the most dower theatre goer will find themselves smiling and when you are not smiling you are laughing. This enjoyment comes from the empathy and humour that Smith inspires.
If you see one thing at the Hippodrome this year let it be this. It is a production not to be missed and a performance for a British actress that will be talked about for years to come.