NOMINATED FOR BEST MUSICAL REVIVAL AND BEST ACTRESS IN A MUSICAL (SHERIDAN SMITH) – OLIVIER AWARDS 2017
Until 8 October 2016
Twenty-six year old Natasha Barnes was about to take a job in Waitrose when she was offered a spot on the West End in a small role in Spring Awakenings (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/theatre/actors/natasha-barnes-sheridan-told-me-to-make-the-part-my-own/). Now as Sheridan Smith’s understudy she is the new star of the Savoy Theatre’s Funny Girl after Smith was forced to take a leave of absence following the BAFTAs. In spite of the sad circumstances it feels very fitting to see Barnes take to the stage to play Fanny Price. The appreciative standing ovation she deservedly earned with her knockout performance brought tears which Barnes assures us are always very real (“When I see all those people standing up for me at the end of a show, those are tears of absolute shock and joy, and I can’t help but cry them every night” Telegraph interview). Reportedly Smith told Barnes to make the role her own. Surely a daunting task when powerhouse past performers include not just Smith herself but also the legendary Barbara Streisland. Barnes does brilliantly and I’m glad to have seen her in the role, delivering a moving performance and capturing a charismatic vulnerability to Price’s focused determination.
Funny Girl charts Fanny Price’s rise to stardom as a singer, actress and comedian in early 20th century America, tracing her turbulent relationship with professional gambler Nick Arnstein (played by Darius Campbell). Thirteen years after her death in 1951, her life became a musical. Fanny is “funny”, not beautiful, she is unique, creative, witty, powerful, a “freckle in life’s complexion” proving you don’t need purely predictable beauty to be a success on stage. Fanny fights professionally and personally a world which typically shuns unpretty, where funny is foreign for a female performer. Fanny is happy to pay the way for her husband’s career ventures, whilst his reluctance to make her a “partner” suggests he doesn’t buy in to being invested in by his wife, and to seeing them as social equals. Or does his pride just feel stifled, forced into the shadows? Whilst Fanny goes from strength to strength Arnstein doesn’t maintain his own sense of self – travelling round, gambling – “that’s who I am”. The power tightrope of their relationship becomes more and more unstable.
The Savoy Theatre is very lovely, an intimate venue of grandeur restored to its 1929 design with a painted Spring sky ceiling, tucked away next to the hotel. The stage is beautifully set thanks to Michael Pavelka’s design. I particularly liked the set of Price’s dressing room, the delicate illuminated mirror, the abundance of flowers, the dressing screen, all conveying an almost ghostly elegance which is emphasised by the use of the sides of the stage and the profiles of the characters – particularly in a scene towards the end where characters turn like dancers in a music box against the mirrored walls.
The musical is set at a time when “unmarried” is frankly a slur and the American woman’s dream is to be a happily married Sadie. In this modern reinvention there are tensions between this and the image of a strong independent woman striking out to forge a successful career, which inherently challenges the conventional passive role carved out for women as a beautiful “reflection of a man’s affection”. Brice wittily mocks this in her first performance for Florenz Ziegfeld, where she challenges his authority and does what she thinks is best – for she wants the audience to laugh with her, not at her. It is a roaring success. This attitude extends to her personal life. Does she not listen to the needs of her husband, absorbed in the journey of her own empowerment and assertion of independence? Whilst there is mockery of marriage as complete fulfilment there is also expression of it in sincere form – voiced by Fanny’s family and friends following a successful show (“The only thing that would make me happier would be to dance at your wedding”) and by Fanny herself.
There are two peaks where the famed Don’t Rain On My Parade reaches its emotional crescendo. Firstly in Fanny’s romantic pursuit of the marriage ideal, it is belted out as Fanny chooses to disregard her lover’s suggestion and turn up unannounced to secure her man in marriage. And again it reappears finally at the close of the play – lifting it to a much more optimistic finishing note. Fanny picks herself up, goes out to face her waiting audience, and so reaches towards her successful career and a re-claiming of her own independence as her comfort. She casts off her dressing gown to reveal a dazzling dress of sparkles, a butterfly reborn? There is a suggestion of new life, possibility, continuation which is encouragingly optimistic in the face of emotional sadness and loss. Having faith in yourself, remembering your own self sufficiency and that success has all been earned by yourself (what did he ever give you?) seems the primary message, and it is a pleasing one.