There’s no doubt it’s been a rocky week for actress Sheridan Smith.
The world of West End theatre has been awash with rumours of why the acclaimed performer is still a no-show, from health concerns and Bafta snubs to Twitter meltdowns and the pressure of dealing with the devastating news her beloved father, Colin, has been diagnosed with cancer.
One thing however is more fact than rumour: Whatever the real reasons for Smith’s continuing absence, which the Savoy Theatre genteely refers to as her “indisposition” – and however bravely talented understudy Natasha Barnes attempts to fill the breach – this stunning revival from director Michael Mayer of Funny Girl will never be the same without her.
Smith is the beating heart and palpable soul of this West End transfer, which on the night I attended last week provoked a standing ovation from the stalls to the upper circle.
Now that’s a standing ovation.
I have to confess that prior to taking my seat at the beautifully apt Savoy Theatre, I had some reservations.
You see, I’m a huge Streisand fan and when I think of Funny Girl, I don’t even think of Fanny Brice, the phenomenal American-Jewish comedienne and Zeigfeld Follies star whose professional and personal life story is laid bare on stage. I think of Barbra in the iconic role that launched her.
So do many others and quite frankly, it takes a brave and talented actress to even think of making the role their own.
And let’s not forget, Streisand’s cultural background wasn’t a million miles away from Brice’s.
But none of that even matters when Smith steps on stage.
Her breath-taking acting talent, her comic timing, her goofy smile, her ability to completely and utterly transfix the audience, not to mention her heart-stopping renditions of Jule Styne’s Don’t Rain On My Parade and People (I actually got goose pimples after that one) simply overflow, nay ooze, with the essence of Brice.
Move over Barbra, there’s a new funny girl in town.
Kudos must also be paid to Joel Montague as Eddie Ryan, the dance instructor and all-round nice guy that’s just too nice for Fanny to fall in love with, who delights with his on-stage backflips and cartwheels.
Marilyn Cutts as Mrs Brice is spot on as the pushy, kvelling, guilt-inducing Jewish mother.
Darius Campbell as the suave, sophisticated and very appealing Nick Arnstein, the Jewish gambler and bad boy Fanny falls head over heels in love, delivers a strong performance and delights in his duet with Smith in You Are Woman, I Am Man.
And let’s not forget director Mayer’s artistic and sentimental handling of the show, which puts the oy into joy, by adding just the right amount of heimische and not too much schmaltz.
Funny Girl is a pure delight, from beginning to end. Let’s just hope Smith can recover swiftly and return to the stage – right where her talent belongs.
Funny Girl is playing at the Savoy Theatre, London until October 8.