Putting on Funny Girl is a very difficult job. It’s set in an era – glamorous 1910s America – not easy to reproduce. It condenses more than a decade of a woman’s life into little over two hours. And its central character, the real-life comic Fanny Brice, is meant to be a woman so impossibly charming and hilarious that, despite a lack of conventional beauty, she made the dashing and wealthy Nick Arnstein fall in love with her – along with all of America.
Molly O’Gorman and Alice Murray’s production takes on all these challenges with vigour, and the result is fantastic. Above all, Heather Murray is simply terrific in the lead role, belting high notes, nailing quips and then dialling up the emotion with a captivating final scene. The rest of the cast is excellent too – there is not a single mediocre vocal performance – and Louisa Chatterton in particular sings Eddie Ryan’s solos so exquisitely you’d never have guessed they were written for a tenor.
The show wasn’t without some snags. While the sixteen-piece band was a joy to listen to, pumping an irresistible energy through the big numbers, it triggered perhaps inevitable sound difficulties. Actors with switched-off mics often found themselves struggling to compete – there’s only one winner there – and background music often came to be foreground music. And visually, there were times when the show felt a little static, needing perhaps some more choreography or more of the runaround physical comedy Brice herself specialised in, to match the dynamism of the music.
The almost all-female cast made for an interesting twist – the only male actor was Guy Webster, playing Fanny’s husband Nicky. Early on, this felt odd – the misogynist anthem “If A Girl Ain’t Pretty” didn’t entirely capture how aggressively and unpleasantly men ruled Fanny Brice’s world – which in turn downplayed Fanny’s achievement in conquering it. That said, there was something striking about the most self-absorbed, inconsiderate, swaggering character being played by the only man; it seemed to underscore Nicky’s masculine narcissism. The moment in the final scene where he wonders, barely apologetic, “What did I ever do for you?” brought this home; you could feel the whole auditorium cocking a head and raising an eyebrow. Nicky, it turns out, does not do very much for anybody.
The whole final scene, in fact, was a triumph. Fanny’s unjustified self-reproach (for earning Nicky too much money, you understand) was wrenching, and Nicky’s willingness to ladle blame onto her exuded a corrosively toxic masculinity recognisable enough to remind us how little progress we’ve made in a century. It was also a beautiful portrait of the impact tragedy has on a comic. Fanny spends her whole life jovially brushing aside disasters, smiling through the pain, until this final heartbreak, when the mask drops. She tells us, “The show must go on”, but it doesn’t – the lights go down, and the refusal to sugar-coat Fanny’s misery is also a powerful statement on the stark consequences male callousness has for women.
But despite its weighty ending, Funny Girl is decidedly funny, and it’s to the credit of the whole company that there’s never a dull moment. The show is tucked away in Robinson Auditorium, but it deserves a bigger audience than the half-empty theatre I sat in. Heather Murray pulls off a seriously demanding lead role; the whole cast and crew pull off a peculiarly tough musical. You should pull your finger out and go see it.