In his new play Funny Girls, English playwright Roy Smiles imagines a fictional encounter between two American pop culture icons, Barbra Streisand and Joan Rivers. From their first on-stage gig as co-actors in an off-Broadway show called ‘Driftwood’ (an event that actually happened in real life) to their run-in many years later at the height of their stardom, this two-hander play examines their friendship built on shared Jewish identities and insecurities about a life in show business, among other things. This production is created in collaboration with Ambassador Theatre Group’s Studio at New Wimbledon Theatre as part of their new Premieres Season, travelling Upstairs at The Gatehouse Theatre next month. Throwing a spotlight on their early lives and the decisions that influenced their career, the play gives us a chance to glimpse at the human beings behind their larger-than-life public personas. However, the writing doesn’t go beyond their noted personality traits and professional hang-ups, with a predictable narrative structure and reliance on impressionist acting approach.
Rosanna Harris delivers a heart-warming portrayal of Barbra Streisand, with a nuanced vocal accent and strong singing voice. She is able to bring out the vast inner transformation in the character’s emotional journey, from a nervous young actress to a self-assured musical star and develop a strong chemistry with her co-star. Mia Tomlinson’s portrayal of Joan Rivers is well-intentioned and humorous, wringing many of Smiles’ one-liners to elicit laughter from the audience, but doesn’t quite capture the emotional growth of the character in the two acts. We are distracted from her otherwise excellent comedic timing and delivery by pronounced non-verbal reactions to Barbara’s dialogues which risks the performance moving towards an impressional portrayal, putting it at odds with the show’s overall naturalistic approach.
Michael Strassen’s direction is able to bring out the two characters’ vibrant personalities on stage through tight dialogue delivery and stage movement yet plays the comedic elements of the text too much (like a comedy) for the audience, which doesn’t let us fully appreciate the innate drama in this clash of egos and idiosyncrasies. Jean Gray’s highly detailed set and costume design helps us carve a strong impression of each character and their personality, especially in the second act wherein the green room’s ornate decorations and belongings bring out the superficiality of stardom (and the characters desire to share a genuine human connection with each other). Smiles’ writing is funny and sharp-witted in parts but doesn’t quite realize the full potential of its initial set up of the premise with too much reliance on narrative exposition and a hasty ending that doesn’t quite resolve the conflict between the two characters.
To summarize, Funny Girls is a light-hearted and amusing portrayal of what might have happened if the biggest musical star and the funniest stand-up comic of 21st century America had nourished a secret friendship built on humble beginnings and shared identities.
You can watch Funny Girls at The New Wimbledon Theatre SW19 1QG until Friday 24th September 2021. Read more and book your ticket at https://www.atgtickets.com/shows/the-funny-girls/studio-at-new-wimbledon-theatre/
Reviewer: Gaurav Singh Nijjer
Reviewed: 20 September 2021
North West End UK Rating: ★★★