We are so used to the Disney versions of our traditional fairytales that we forget they come from a dark place. Tales of babies being cursed at birth, young women being locked away or made to sleep for 100 years. I am, it has to be said not a natural lover of ballet. I sometimes find it a little sterile for my personal tastes, however there is something about Matthew Bourne’s productions that I absolutely adore.
The theatre is plunged into darkness, a crack of thunder sounds and the menacing outline of Carabosse appears, played superbly by Adam Maskell. This is a lavish production, a return to the gothic roots of this fairytale. Bourne takes us on a journey from 1890 ( the year this ballet was first performed) through to the present day. It’s a twisting turning adventure through a dark ride. From the birth of the baby Aurora and her subsequent spiriting away to an underworld where she sleeps for 100 years, everything is beautifully choreographed. There is not one wasted movement. The thing I particularly love about this production is that the stripping away of some of the traditional elements of ballet puts the dancer’s skills totally in the spotlight. I can see the muscular physicality of their movements, the sheer hard work of their effortlessness, the way they communicate with every single part of their bodies. It is a stunning feast of dance and the dancers themselves are superb. The title role is played with elegance and power by Ashley Shaw and having watched her on stage I can only be excited at the prospect of her taking the lead in Bourne’s next production The Red Shoes which will be coming to the Wales Millennium Centre in 2017. Ashley is more than ably supported by Dominic North as Leo and Christopher Marney as Count Lilac together with a cast of exquisite dancers.
This stunning production uses a lush opulent set design to convey a dark gothic Victorian age and an Edwardian garden party before thrusting us into a stark underworld and a sinister costume ball. The use of puppetry for the baby Aurora is a stroke of genius introducing some lighter notes of comedy at the beginning of the ballet before unleashing a duel between the fairy kingdoms with a vampire thrown in for good measure all swept along by Tchaikovsky’s score. The whole production is a wonderful spectacle returning the tale of Sleeping Beauty to the place it truly belongs.
When most people think of Funny Girl it is probably inevitable that they think of Barbra Streisand who played musical comedy star Fanny Brice in the Broadway Production of 1964 and went on to win an oscar for the movie of the same name. Songs such as ‘People’ and ‘Rain On My Parade’ are so synonymous with Streisand, that I wondered whether the new Funny Girl revival, that has recently transferred to the beautiful Art Deco surroundings of the Savoy Theatre in London, would suffer in comparison.
My only experience of Sheridan Smith was as a television actress notably in Mrs Biggs, Gavin and Stacey and of course playing Cilla Black. Having watched her playing Cilla I knew that she could sing but there is singing on television and there is commanding a stage. I need not have worried. From the moment Sheridan takes the stage, she is Fanny Brice. It would be understandable to have an actress offer up a performance of Streisand’s interpretation of Fanny Brice but Smith doesn’t do this. Funny Girl is taken back to its Broadway roots. It is Brice’s story, albeit a somewhat fictional account of her rise to fame and subsequent marriage to gambler Nick Arnstein, played with a delicate light and shade from Darius Campbell. Yes, it is he of Pop Idol fame.
Darius delivers a very strong performance but the stage belongs to Sheridan Smith. I have rarely seen an actress so totally inhabit a character in musical theatre. From her walk, her superb comic timing and her delivery of each song, Sheridan does not miss a beat. She is actually so good that you barely notice the rest of the cast and they deserve to be noticed for they are truly excellent, particularly Marilyn Cutts who plays Fanny’s mother and Joel Montague who plays Eddie.
The musical itself is a game of two halves as the first half is the thrill of the chase, Fanny chasing fame and Nick Arnstein. A riotous and joyful ride of delicious comedy and gorgeous songs stunningly delivered. The second half of the show centres on the breakdown of her marriage and is tender and poignant but lacks the punch of the opening act. The staging is smart, suggesting hints of Vaudeville, a Brooklyn tenement and the opulence of the Ziegfeld Follies without using much more than costumes and some clever movements across the stage. The whole show is carried beautifully by a stunning central performance as Sheridan Smith is one of those stage performers that the audience loves from the minute she sets foot on that stage to the final lung busting notes. The standing ovation was immediate and heartfelt. I would heartily recommend Funny Girl. Sheridan Smith is a special talent on a stage and that is not to be missed.