Funny Girl. April 2016.

Dear Rowley,

They’re going to start calling me the Jonah of the West End. I book Sunset Boulevard on the first night of the run that Glenn Close is indisposed. We get tickets for Funny Girl at the Savoy Theatre only for the show to be stopped about twenty minutes in due to ‘technical issues’. Funny Girl has already proved a hit for the delicious Sheridan Smith at the Menier Chocolate Factory. The Savoy transfer has been well reviewed. However…

If today’s newspapers are to be believed, the ‘technical glitch’ involved the leading lady and a bottle of Blue Nun. Well, I was on the arm of the divine Miss McCarthy who had secured the last two tickets up in the gods so we both had our mother-of-pearl opera glasses trained on the stage and were well placed to scrutinise the star’s performance.

When Sheridan appeared and uttered the immortal opener ‘Hello gorgeous!’ Miss M and I exchanged glances. The Brooklyn accent so natural to Streisand seemed to elude Sheridan as did most of the notes in I’m The Greatest Star. Was she drunk? Hard to tell because an actress could just – just – get away with gauche mugging when she’s playing a young Fanny Brice. But the audience laughter was nervous. You could feel the unease in the ether.

The alarm bells turned into a Code Red when Sheridan gave us her Fanny Brice stage debut. In the film, Barbra Streisand makes us fall in love with Fanny when she appears with  chorus line of beauties on roller-skates. Fanny then sings I’d Rather Be Blue as a solo spot and we understand she’s not just a funny girl. In this production, Sheridan is costumed in a blue hobble skirt and sings a rather peppy number backed by two buff chorus boys. If the real Fanny Brice has put in that performance, her career would have been over before it started.

Not only was the voice off, the choreography was blowsy. As well as patting the boys’ bums, Sheridan went for another handful when they turned to face the audience. I can’t imagine that was in rehearsal. Nor, one would imagine, was Fanny flashing her – well – fanny in red satin bloomers as Sheridan did on several occasions. At this point, I was watching through fingers over eyes rather than opera glasses. I think the safety curtain came down soon after.

Despite the Savoy Theatre management maintaining that the trouble was technical, I don’t think audience or ushers were fooled. Actually, strike that. We were fooled because we were told to go to the bars, go out for air and stick around in the hope that the show would go on. Forty minutes later after several thousand unexpected pounds taken in the theatre bars, a tannoy announced that the show was stopped. Few of us were sorry to call it a night.

The question for us was not whether the leading lady was drunk. The concern was that if she wasn’t, what the hell was going on at the Savoy Theatre that night? I understand Sheridan Smith’s father has been diagnosed with cancer and that she had posted several ill-advised Tweets having missed a few nights during the Chocolate Factory run. Was this another chapter in a personal family drama? I don’t think so.

From what Miss M and I saw on that stage it was obvious – drunk or sober – that Sheridan Smith’s Fanny Brice would never compare favourably to Barbra. Barbra Streisand was literally born to play Fanny Brice just as Liza Minnelli and Sally Bowles were one and the same. Granted, an actress should have range beyond her experience and Sheridan has demonstrated this time after time. But her greatest hit so far was a Scouse actress playing a Scouse singer Cilla Black. Sheridan/Cilla was as perfect a match-up as Barbra/Fanny.

Sheridan Smith is not a natural Fanny Brice. From the  few numbers we heard, her voice doesn’t suit the big Broadway ballads and showstoppers. I saw Sheridan in Little Shop of Horrors on the West End stage a few years back. As Audrey, she was adorable and she also had the pipes to sell big songs. The problem with Funny Girl is that (a) the numbers are relentless and (b) they were definitively sung by Barbra Streisand.

Perhaps Funny Girl was Sheridan Smith’s Waterloo after a stupendous run of rather brilliant work on television and the stage. There is a huge well of affection for her. The audiences love her. If she announced she was playing Yenta the Match Girl in Fiddler on the Roof she’d be a sell-out. But just because an actress can play a role, doesn’t mean she ought to. With Sheridan’s star as bright as it is right now, I would not have chosen Funny Girl as a vehicle to take her higher. There is a very good reason why nobody has even tried to revive Funny Girl since Barbra brought it to the West End in the 1960s…

I have a theory that for a performer to be loved as Sheridan Smith evidently is, she has to be vulnerable and touch a place in audience hearts that cast iron bitch divas who never miss a show cannot. There’s no secret that Sheridan’s love life has been ‘colourful’, that she likes a few sips and that she is a deeply emotional woman. None of this is a flaw. We love her all the more because, perhaps, we want to protect Sheridan Smith and see her live happily ever after off stage as well as on.

Sheridan Smith has that taut fragility of performers like Judy Garland, Marilyn Monroe and Vivien Leigh that inspires huge affection, empathy and adoration in audiences. With phenomenal talent like hers, each performance is a dance on the tightrope. If Sheridan Smith wobbled – and she did – it will only make audiences love her more when she has another go and triumphs.