Joan Davies applauds Sheridan Smith and her very funny Fanny

MANCHESTER’s Palace Theatre is the first stop for the national tour of Menier Chocolate Factory Theatre’s revival of Funny Girl, the musical about real life comedienne Fanny Bryce, which arguably propelled Barbra Streisand into stardom via the mid-60s stage production and film. It’s also a triumph for its current star, the versatile and in-demand Sheridan Smith.

The star of the show is undoubtedly Sheridan Smith as Fanny. She’s funny, very funny

Fanny grew up in a lively New York Jewish community born of mass migration from Europe. In the ‘land of the free’ the work of this community’s composers, story-tellers and theatre-makers thrived. Fanny became an early C20 comedy star, initially with Ziegfeld’s ‘Follies’, and then with film and radio, returning to Broadway in the 1930s.

As mass communication took hold the advantages of beauty in the entertainment business were clear. Fanny wasn’t beautiful, but she was funny. Funny enough to see her Follies earnings rise to $3k a week, more than any of Ziegfeld’s ‘beautiful girls’. Her private life was less fortunate.

Funny Girl tells its story clearly, presenting a picture of a close, loving but ambitious neighbourhood, a fierce determination to make the best of what you have, and a woman coping with the underlying uncertainly a talented but unbeautiful woman can suffer.

There’s no doubt Fanny was funny. So must be the show. And it is, which is probably just as well, because as a musical it doesn’t score so strongly. There are two well-known stand-out songs: People and Don’t Rain on My Parade. The first act is delightful with entertaining song-and-dance, cute scenes, and a strong narrative drive. The second act relies heavily on more of the same, in musical terms, but has little dramatic drive.

Production values are high with a stunning set, impressive costumes and a cast who seem to be made for their roles, though I’m less impressed with the over-aged styling that musicals attach to any woman – but few men – over 45. Particularly strong is Rachel Izen’s performance as Mrs Brice, with hidden dancing depths, plus Joshua Lay as Eddie Ryan, Fanny’s loyal, loving, and romantically over-looked choreographer. While Chris Peluso, as Nick Arnstein, performs ballads and duets with grace, accuracy and warmth.

The star of the show is undoubtedly Sheridan Smith as Fanny. She’s funny, very funny, with brilliant physical and verbal comic timing and a range of expression. She can sing. She can dance. She can do both together, with added physical comedy. And she exudes warmth. The standing ovation was thoroughly deserved.

Only in her mid-30s, Sheridan Smith is currently one of our most successful young actors with an impressive CV. Her TV work includes a portrayal of Cilla Black, comedy roles in The Royle Family, Two Pints of Lager and Gavin & Stacey, and awards for her stage work, including Best Actress for Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler. Quite a range.

Funny Girl won’t hit many, if any, ‘top musicals’ lists, but this production is worth a visit to see such talent at work.

Funny Girl is at Manchester Palace Theatre from 18 - 25 February returning from 7 – 19 August.