Some of my favourite nights in the theatre have been spent watching Menier Chocolate Factory musicals, and being the first London production of Funny Girl since 1966 the odds were good that the outlook was dry with sunny spells, but instead I came away feeling that my parade had been somewhat pissed on.
Everything about the production has its eyes on bigger and potentially greater things. From the forced proscenium that frames a rather overly ambitious playing space to the tinny sound mixing of the band who are nowhere to be seen, I couldn't stop thinking about how much better the production would feel in the Savoy, with room to effectively stage the bigger numbers and treat the material with the scale it deserves. Having one eye on further afield has, in this case, severely restricted what could have been achieved at this premium fringe venue which has an international reputation for theatrical ingenuity.
What's missing is a heavy dose of Menier magic. The innovation that the venue has previously brought to productions such as 'The Color Purple' or 'Merrily We Roll Along', both of which went on to transfer, just isn't present. It feels self conscious, unfinished and in many cases rushed. Director Michael Mayer doesn't give the show a reason to exist beyond the obvious – we're duped into watching the life story of a character who bears no relevance to our lives, whom very few people are familiar with. He adds some nice touches with mirrors in the wings that add to the aesthetic but don't tie a concept firmly together.
Despite being one of musical theatre's most famous titles, the show hasn't had a successful shelf life as a piece of theatre. The ghost of Barbra Streisand looms over it, and it's a rare example where the film adaptation is much more widely known than the stage production. Whilst this frees the material to some extent, the attempts to tighten the book and pad out a rather unremarkable and frankly quite dull story don't strengthen the show as a whole. Harvey Fierstein's 'adapted' book is quick with the wisecracks, and sharpens the humour, but doesn't make us feel much connection with any of the characters. With the addition of a couple of Styne's trunk songs to add more depth to Nicky Arnstein, there's a vain effort to patch over some of the holes in the show, but it still seems obvious why the musical was awarded no Tony Award wins back in 1964, and we're reminded in context what a superior show 'Hello, Dolly!' is as a result.
The cast didn't feel entirely comfortable with or in command of their environment, be it the constant dropping of props or costume to their awkward navigation of the two stage travelators that add a totally unnecessary dimension to the staging. It was like watching contestants tackle the final round on Gladiators - you never knew when they'd be hit in the face by someone's high kick or put a foot wrong and be carried off-stage against their will. Lynne Page's choreography was ably attempted – again, in a bigger space with additional ensemble, the Vaudeville numbers will land, but in this environment they are a constant reminder of how claustrophobic the stage feels.
The single unit set plays fast and loose with both situation and time, leaving a rather ugly drop as a primary focus for the entire show. Primarily told through a day-dream flashback as she waits for her husband to return from prison, the structure itself doesn't work, as we see parts of a memory that didn't involve Fanny and scenes and conversations that she wasn't involved in. Combined with some sloppy direction, from characters constantly speaking into the wings to cover costume and wig changes to incomplete props (glasses with no liquid in were particularly frustrating) I couldn't feel the love for the material, and it felt too opportunistic and at many times inconsequential.
The question on everybody's lips is surely that of double Olivier Award-winner Ms Smith, and it pains me to report that it's a mixed bag. When she's good, she's unstoppable – her charm and natural humour are infectious, and you don't take your eyes off her. Unfortunately she's been directed to exaggerate the range in ages so extensively that she plays Fanny far too young at the top of the show in order to build enough of a contrast. Her 'otherness' which the drama rests on is clearly played for laughs in relation to Ms Smith's height, and in that respect she works hard and commands the stage well.
Vocally, it will surprise no one, is where she meets her biggest challenge. With such iconic torch songs to contend with it's an uphill battle from the start, and her delivery of character overcompensates pitch, tone and power in a vague effort to smoke and mirror us into submission. As in 'Legally Blonde', she excels in character songs and numbers where she's relying on movement and physicality to propel the performance, and she's a much more natural on-stage performer than Streisand in the Vaudeville numbers, which is fully to her credit. Her duet with Darius Campbell's aloof and solid Nicky Arnstein “You are Woman” is by far her finest moment all evening. By the time we hit “People”, cracks have started to show, and basic tuning issues creep in, compounded by some rather obvious acting choices that flatten the song rather than make the hairs on your arms stand on end.
It's a piece that will take some real warming up, and I'm confident that there is much shaping to do as it heads towards its future life. What remains a shame is that the success in ticket sales and hype has not been reflected in this initial production. Rather than live up to Menier tradition, it has been reduced to a sort of out-of-town 'tryout' with everyone looking further down the line for the piece to really come together, and that is this production's greatest disappointment.
"What marks [Sheridan] Smith out is her ability to suggest sky’s-the-limit enthusiasm and an earthbound quality; we can believe that, as well as seeking applause and approval, above all Fanny needs love."
Dominic Cavendish for The Telegraph
"The show rests squarely on the shoulders of Sheridan Smith, who suggests that, as with Shakespeare’s Beatrice, a star danced at her nativity."
Micheal Billington for The Guardian
"It is rare for such a transfer to be announced even before the show has opened but that’s Sheridan Smith’s box office appeal for you. And she deserves it, for she is all heart, this lady."
Quentin Letts for The Daily Mail
"Early on, Fanny boasts that she has 36 expressions — better than all her theatrical rivals combined — but the elfin Smith has plenty more. Her voice is satisfyingly confident, yet what really distinguishes her is the searching, precise way she uses her eyes."
Rob Dex for The Evening Standard