There’s little that the stunning Sheridan Smith cannot do, and here she not only spins straw into pure gold, but offers a joyous master class in musical comedy while she’s at it. Funny Girl is a show that will forever shiver in the shadow of Barbra Streisand, who created the central role of Fanny Brice on stage in 1963 and immortalised it on film five years later. That’s quite a legacy for any leading lady to live up to. But that’s not the only problem. Isobel Lennart’s book, here revised by Harvey Fierstein, is woefully under-nourished, a thin biographical trot through Fanny’s career and love life in which plot and incident are almost non-existent, and the character of her grand amour, the gambler Nick Arnstein, is bloodlessly under-written. No one could really claim that this revival, directed by Michael Mayer and a transfer from the miniature musicals powerhouse the Menier Chocolate Factory, really solves any of the issues with the material. But Jule Styne’s score and Bob Merrill’s lyrics scamper, jaunt and swoon along, and above all, Smith is triumphantly a heroine to lose your heart to.
Lynne Page’s choreography combines clever comic touches with a ravishing, shameless sense of Ziegeld-era showbiz romance, and Michael Pavelka’s set, with its dressing-room mirrors and lights and its lovely art deco flourishes, is a shimmering delight. But they’re no match for the sparkle in Smith’s wide, witty blue eyes. Here is all the fake glitter of stage illusion, matched with the genuine glitter of true star quality. She’s adorable in pigtails, sailor shirt and rompers, asserting her unique talents in "I’m the Greatest Star" and complaining ruefully of being “a bagel on a plate of onion rolls,” while hilarious as the shotgun-wedding bride, stroking the fake, heavily pregnant belly beneath her white satin gown in the cloying vaudeville number in which a bevy of more conventionally pretty chorines trill about how "His Love Makes Me Beautiful." Although she may not have the hugest vocal range or belt out the biggest top notes, she makes us feel every heartbeat of the two standout songs – the blissful, rhapsodic "People" and the feisty, defiant "Don’t Rain on My Parade." There’s a freshness and immediacy about her performance that’s as irresistible in her offstage moments of loneliness, longing and self-doubt as it is amid all her onstage dazzle. You don’t just want to spend the evening in her company; you want to take her home with you afterwards, too.
It’s unfortunate, then, that she’s stuck with the irredeemably wooden Darius Campbell as her dreamboy. Tall, dark and handsome he may be, but he displays zero personality. While he’s hardly helped by the writing, his leaden delivery and awkward stage presence render him a hopelessly inadequate foil to Smith’s vivid fizz and charisma. Marilyn Cutts is drily entertaining as Fanny’s proud, acerbic mother. Bruce Montague makes an astute and elegant Florenz Ziegfeld. And Joel Montague turns in a hugely beguiling cameo as Fanny’s hoofer pal Eddie. This is, though, emphatically Smith’s show – and she is, quite simply, superb.