Natasha J Barnes has a tricky job in front of her; despite someone else’s name being billed above the theatre entrance, she has delight crowds in one of the biggest roles on the West End. With two huge names having preceded her as Fanny Brice, firstly the great Barbra Streisand who originated the role and most recently the much loved Sheridan Smith, Barnes has big shoes to fill but she is absolutely sensational in Funny Girl. It’s a pretty dated musical but Barnes and the cast breathe new life into it and take the audience by surprise with plenty of charm and razzle dazzle. Natasha J Barnes is the greatest star in Funny Girl and you can’t help but fall head over heels for her as Fanny.
Photo credit: Johan Persson
Funny Girl follows the true story of Fanny Brice, a young girl from New York who becomes one of the country’s best loved comediennes. Fanny wins over the hearts of many in the Ziegfeld Follies and also the attention of Nick Arnstein (Darius Campbell), a sophisticated gambler, who proceeds to sweep her off her feet.
In Funny Girl, Natasha J Barnes proves herself to be a truly excellent leading lady. She takes hold of the audience’s affection in the very first scene and doesn’t let go, stringing us all along for the ride as we move through the musical. Her comic timing is impeccable and every single expression she pulls seems to be executed to perfection; her first number, I’m the Greatest Star, is exhilarating to watch due to her seemingly boundless energy. Barnes carries this through the whole show and presents Fanny as a really complex and emotionally driven character in the second act. Comparisons will be made between Sheridan Smith and Natasha J Barnes and it’s very easy to imagine Smith in the role as they are similar in physical stature and cheeky style of movement. However in such unusual circumstances, it’s impressive how Barnes has completely made this part her own and in turn this role may just be the making of an illustrious career on the West End.
Darius Campbell is the slick Nick Arnstein who woos Fanny with his swishing tail coat and dulcet tones. He plays games with the mind of the audience, one minute charming and chivalrous, the next cold and calculating; Campbell manoeuvres this duplicity well. The three old women from Fanny’s neighbourhood, Mrs Meeker, Mrs Brice and Mrs Strakosh (Valda Aviks, Marilyn Cutts and Gay Soper) provide a grounding for the show, somewhere to come back to as Fanny goes jet-setting with Nick. Fanny’s dancer friend Eddie, Joel Montague, also serves to remind the audience of the different path she could have taken in her love life, possibly the one which wouldn’t leave her so emotionally damaged. He and Fanny’s mother have a really lovely number, “Who Taught Her Everything?”, which brings the plot back down to earth but shows how far Fanny has flown from her start as a hapless vaudeville chorus girl to the renowned, rich comedienne.
The whole production feels very slick, helped by the smooth transitions and the use of the travellator in the choreography. The 1910’s/1920’s look is very well coordinated but the actual story feels timeless, you could imagine the exact same thing happening to a young star of today. However some of the sentiments expressed by characters reveal the age of Funny Girl, notably when Mrs Brice urges Fanny to stop helping Nick financially and let him “be a man”, the idea that Fanny is going back to work and Nick has to stay home and look after their child is also presented rather negatively and feels quite dated to today’s audiences. Nevertheless Harvey Fierstein (Kinky Boots) has done a wonderful job at revising Isobel Lennart’s book and the music of Bob Merrill and Jule Styne remains just as vibrant over 50 years since its first performance.
The musical numbers are brilliant and they showcase Barnes’ talent for comedy and her crisp and clear voice. “His Love Makes Me Beautiful” and “I’m the Greatest Star” are definitely the most fun to watch where as “Rat Tat Tat Tat” feels a bit dull. Anyone who loves Lea Michele’s rendition of “Don’t Rain on My Parade” in Glee is sure to get goose-bumps when they first hear it in the overture before Barnes gives it all she has at the end of the first act.
The revival of Funny Girl is a real success and it’s all down to the key performance by Natasha J Barnes. Watching her feels like a real pleasure, I’m sure we’ll see her in many more leading lady roles after Funny Girl, if starring as Fanny Brice doesn’t propel her into West End stardom I don’t know what will! If you have tickets don’t feel disheartened that Sheridan Smith may not be performing; you’re still getting a wonderful show with an incredible leading lady. Fate may have tried to rain on Funny Girl’s parade but Natasha J Barnes has shown herself to be the greatest star as Fanny Brice.
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