Funny Girl. November 2017.

Dear Rowley,

There are few performers who can trade under one name and be instantly recognisable. There are the divas – Liza, Barbra, Bette, Cher – and there are the pop queens Madonna, Beyonce and Rihanna who didn’t bother with a surname in the first place. It is rare for a television personality to achieve that status. Cilla did it first and now ITV has blessed Sheridan Smith with a special simply billing her as ‘Sheridan’.

I have been a fan of Sheridan Smith since seeing her absolutely own the role of tart with a heart Audrey in Little Shop of Horrors. More from luck than judgement I saw her play a psychedelic Woodstock Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream where she acted David Walliams off the stage. I also saw Sheridan play the lead in Legally Blonde: a commercial success but not a musical I warmed to or remembered a note from the score.

I was longing to love Sheridan as Fanny Brice in Funny Girl but happened to be in the audience at the Savoy theatre on the night the curtain was brought down mid-show. I was with Miss McCarthy that night and, from the opening number, we had concerns that all was not well. We didn’t know whether it was the singer or the song but the star was woozy and off-key. The curtain went down when Sheridan performed a number that involved lewd gestures with chorus boys that surely was not developed in the rehearsal room.

To be fair to Sheridan Smith, her father had died during the run of Funny Girl and I would have said that she could have given herself (and her understudy) a break. The stage manager clearly agreed and bought the curtain down due to technical difficulties. This would have been easier to swallow had we not been invited to have a drink in the bar for an hour before the jig was up and the show didn’t go on.

Watching the ITV special, I was rather disappointed that Sheridan Smith has become the cliche she always avoided. It takes a gifted actress to hold her own in The Royle Family and I thought she gave a bravura performance as Brandy (surely Brandi?) in Benidorm displaying comic timing that would have left Fanny Brice in the shade. She defied expectations again playing both Hedda Gabler and an Olivier Award-winning role in Rattigan’s Flight Path. Her string of leading roles on TV including Mrs Biggs and Cilla - where she sang better than the original – were nuanced and at times raw.

I have had a couple of brushes with the late, great Cilla Black and remember her being as hard as nails. When asked if she would have made it without her only love, Bobby, Cilla said ‘Yeah’. I would imagine that Sheridan would have answered exactly the same. She is a natural star and absorbs attention and applause with that combination of gratitude and entitlement and that’s not a critique.

Watching the Sheridan Smith special on ITV, a comeback in all but name, I wondered how she had got to that point in her career so early. The oleaginous Alexander Armstrong never asked anything more taxing than ‘why were you so fabulous in…’ and completely ducked the opportunity to go for tears (crocodile or not) about the breakdown in 2016.

Sheridan is 36 and that’s a bit young to be playing a Diana Dors character with wobbly bosoms, double chuckling chins, peroxide hair and a bizarre array of tattoos on full display with a gold lamé evening dress that even Di Dors would have considered a bit bold. We all love a knowing, brassy diva and forgive an awful lot if the artist has had a long life of struggle.

One hopes Sheridan is just getting started. The mannerisms when singing employ all the old tricks of broads who can’t reach the high notes but vamp like crazy to cover up technical imperfections. Covering short notes with a ‘Hah!’ or a ‘Yeah’ is OK for Dorothy Squires but not for the first actress to tackle Funny Girl since Barbra Streisand originated the role.

I suspect the lady might be manic depressive but you name a performer who isn’t. Was it wise to throw Crazy into the repertoire to give  a bit of a nod and a wink to last year’s troubles? As anyone with manic depression knows, it never pays to be flippant. I also suspect Sheridan has not been lucky in love but that would go for any female performer since the year dot.

Listening to Sheridan crucify Mad About the Boy all I could hear was a Northern club singer who’s seen rough times returning to her roots. As for Marilyn Monroe’s national anthem Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend, covering that is a case of fools rushing in. Sheridan Smith is a star. She is loved. She is talented. I also happen to think she’s far too good for the blowsy album tour. Still, I bet she wins another fist-full of Oliviers and puts this behind her.