On 12 May 2016 it was announced that Sheridan Smith would take a 2-4 week break from performing the role of Fanny Brice in Funny Girl at the Savoy Theatre due to stress and exhaustion. Understudy Natasha J Barnes stepped into the role (something she had previously done for one week during its run at the Menier Chocolate Factory when Sheridan also took a break) with just a few hours notice and without having fully rehearsed the part on the West End stage.
Natasha has been making headline news recently by turning upset audience members frowns upside down and taking them from complaining and demanding their money back because Sheridan was not performing as advertised, to standing ovations at the end of every show because of her magnificent performance. Having seen Sheridan perform the show twice (once at the Menier Chocolate Factory and once at the Savoy Theatre) I was keen to go and check out Natasha’s portrayal of the role whilst she is filling in for Sheridan.
Natasha truly is the greatest star, embracing the role in the face of adversity, knowing that audiences have paid to see Sheridan Smith and are a little disappointed when the show first begins that she is not there. Natasha grabs the audience by the ears and pulls them into her incredibly warm and sweet portrayal of Fanny Brice with adorable comedic expressions that really hammer home the true story of a girl who made her fame and fortune because she was funny. Any stubborn audience members who may have been reluctant to embrace Natasha at first, were immediately won over in Act 2 with the hilarious song ‘Rat-Tat-Tat-Tat’ in which she portrays a Nazi soldier with a comedy moustache. The audience were captivated in fits of laughter, believing they were watching something very special.
You can read my original review of Funny Girl here (December 2015) and (April 2016). One thing I haven’t mentioned in previous reviews, is the incredible performances by Valda Aviks and Gay Soper as Mrs Meeker and Mrs Strakosh. These two actresses have an incredible combined history of performing in West End shows such as Once, Sweeney Todd, The Witches of Eastwick, Sunday In The Park With George and The Curious Incident of the Dog In The Night-Time (to mention but a few) and it is wonderful to see these two actresses still being embraced on the West End stage even in their later life.
Both Sheridan and Natasha have two things on their side with this production. They have a brilliant character to portray with Fanny Brice and they are wonderfully directed in the show by Michael Mayer. One thing is for sure, whether people are lucky enough to see Sheridan or Natasha in Funny Girl, they will not be disappointed.
Please, don’t rain on the understudy’s parade. It is a difficult job and Natasha is incredible. I hope that with this story being such big news, along with the recent Sunset Boulevard story where understudy Ria Jones stood in for Glenn Close for a few days (also to standing ovations), audience members will be more inclined to accept that everyone gets sick and they are not paying to see a celebrity on stage, they are paying to see a show with incredibly talented performers, regardless of whether they are the ones you were expecting to see or not.
Sheridan Smith is due to return to the role no later than the week commencing 11 July 2016. Get tickets here
Reviewed by West End Wilma
Photo: Manuel Harlan