When I go to the theatre I go to see a particular production whether it be Shakespeare or Sondheim. My vision of a show is the total package, made up of different elements each one as important as the other for its success, perhaps this stems from my theatrical background and  family members who had been “in the business”.

So when I heard that the advertised  leading lady of Funny Girl was not appearing it was like water off a duck’s back – it just didn’t bother me. I was there to enjoy an evening of live theatre, albeit as part of my job as a theatre critic. I was there to enjoy Funny Girl, the story of Fanny Brice – and  what a Fanny Brice the audience saw on stage in Natasha J Barnes, currently sharing the role on the UK tour with the Sheridan Smith, who had been diagnosed with mumps. Barnes’s performance literally blew me away.

Funny Girl recalls Fanny Brice’s early life, her rise to fame, friendships and her obsession for the charming gambler Nick Arnstein, despite his failed and crooked business ventures.

The musical ran for over 3 years on Broadway and later in the West End in the early 60’s before been made into a film later in the decade and since then has never enjoyed any major revival since then until now.

As a stage show Funny Girl lacks substance. Time and storylines become blurred and many of the particularly funny and poignant interludes are lost underneath a froth of movement, insignificant and irrelevant music.

This touring production of Funny Girl  is a workmanlike and rather economical one with an overly long first half that at times drags, ducking and diving  between places and events so many times that the audience become confused by it all.

Funny Girl’s set can only be described as a mish-mash of bad taste that doesn’t quite work. It has a rouched  back cloth, often badly lit in garish colours and flimsy tabs that would look better in someone’s front lounge both of which become annoying and distracting after a while. The mirrored flats work well but only for a small percentage of the audience due to the sight lines in the auditorium.

With all these faults Funny Girl could have been a disaster but for its one secret weapon the quality, talent and experience of its superb cast.

The part of Fanny Brice can be a minefield for any performer but Natasha Barnes ticks every box. She has nailed Fanny’s character beautifully from her facial expressions to her less than perfect feet! She is fun, ebullient, determined and naïve but also pulls at the heart strings in the more poignant interludes.

Vocally any Streisand role is demanding. It needs power, punch, control and energy to belt out those now “anthems” ‘Don’t Rain on My Parade’ and ‘People’ as they are peppered with tricky phrases, both high and marathonly long notes and above all need to be emotionally charged. Barnes conquered them all and did exactly that!

Darius Campbell as Nick Arnstein lacked the rakish charm of the man-about-town gambler and trickster – he was just too nice!  But in the vocals he excels and shows just how far he has progressed in musical theatre from his days in Pop Idol. Campbell and Barnes make a dream team.

Veteran musical theatre performers Richel Izen (Mrs Brice), Zoe Ann Bown (Mrs Meeker) and Myra Sands (Mrs Strakosh) are outstanding with their spot on characterisations making them  three really believable Jewish mamas. Their wonderful comedy timing, nifty footwork and vocals stole the show for me!

Funny Girl needs believably cast supporting roles and in Joshua Lay as song and dance man Eddie, Jennifer Harding as Emma, Fanny’s confident and dresser, Nigel Barber (Florenz Ziegfeld) and Martin Callaghan (Mr Keeney) the producers have certainly got it right.

But this musical owes a lot of its prowess to its high-kicking, high-energy and superb ensemble who sing and dance their way through the night with such ease, talent and panache.

Funny Girl runs at Bradford Alhambra to Saturday 10 June.

Liz Coggins is a member of the Critics Circle



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