Stars explained: * A production of no real merit with failings in all areas. ** A production showing evidence of not enough time or effort, or even talent, and which never breathes any real life into the piece – or a show lumbered with a terrible script. *** A good enjoyable show which might have some small flaws but has largely achieved what it set out to do.**** An excellent show which shows a great deal of work and stage craft with no noticeable or major flaws.***** A four star show which has found that extra bit of magic which lifts theatre to another plane.
Half stars fall between the ratings


Phebe Bland as Fanny Brice with the wonderfully costumed chorus. Pictures: Christopher Commander

Funny Girl

Sutton Arts Theatre


Back in 1964 Funny Girl made the then 21-year-old Barbra Streisand a Broadway and ultimately international star but this stunning Sutton Arts production brings another Streisand hit to mind, A Star is Born – Phebe Bland is simply superb as Fanny Brice.

She takes the part by the scruff of the neck and never lets it go. We knew she was good when the then Phebe Jackson, aced Maria in West Side Story, back in 2015, the first of Sutton Arts big summer musicals.

We have seen her shine in many Sutton productions since then as well as fitting in marriage and motherhood, but Funny Girl sees her at a whole new level. She is no longer good, she is phenomenal.

Bland is funny, animated, never stops, lights up the stage whenever she appears, makes all the big numbers bigger and has the audiesnce eating out of her hand from the moment she appears on stage, so much so that in the emotive finale you can’t help but feel for her, she has created a real lump in the throat moment.

But it is not just Phebe who shines, there is not a weak character in the cast of 22 in a musical that is one of the best I have seen from any amateur company, amateur in this case shining with a fair amount of professional polish.

The story is simple, a sort of romanticised and heavily fictionalised version of the life of Broadway comedy star Brice, so let’s not rain on Fanny’s parade with the more sordid real story, we’ll just sit back and enjoy an entertaining evening of wonderful musical theatre.

Brice is a stage-struck ugly duckling sacked from the chorus of Tom Keeney’s Broadway Vaudeville theatre because she doesn’t look like a showgirl and she couldn’t dance – at least not with the same steps, in the same direction or at the same time as the excellent nine strong, long-legged chorus line.


A wonderful performance as Fanny from Phebe Bland

And, while we are at Keeney’s, who has ever heard of an amateur production sporting a line up like the Tiller girls (showing my age there) who can dance and even tap – so a nod there to the lovely dancers and choreographer Anna Stuart with some very unamateur and slick routines all with a nod to the time the story is set around 1910 into the 1920s.

Frank, played by a curmudgeonly Patrick Richmond-Ward is a grumpy old theatre manager in a green check suit you could only get away with in 1910 vaudeville or cartoons. Brice is gone, forgotten, as far as he’s concerned.

With the help of dancer Eddie, though, she sneaks back in as a speciality act and Keeney, who knows a good thing when his audience sees one, takes her back. Kieran Jenkins gives us a sad, well-defined Eddie, he’s the would-be boyfriend Fanny never had, looking out for her, but never more than a friend and a ready shoulder to cry on.

It is at Keeney’s where she first meets Nicky Arnstein, man about town, professional gambler, deal maker and friend of everyone who was anyone. It’s a lovely balanced performance from Paul Atkins who gives us an urbane, considerate, even noble Nick. It is easy to play him as a smooth-talking con man and Atkins avoids that trap.


A delightful chorus line gracing the Ziegfield Follies

Arnstein was still alive when the musical was written, he was to die, aged 86, a year after the show opened, so with his very real looming threat of legal action the script played it safe and the lifelong sponger, con man and career criminal was transformed into Mr Nice Guy, which is about as far from the truth as you can get without falling off the planet – but we’ll let that pass. Mr Nice Guy is how its written and Atkins plays it to perfection.

From Keeney’s to becoming a big star came with a move to Florenz Ziegfeld’s theatre, he of follies fame, played with a mix of infuriation at the strong-willed Fanny and impresario admiration for his young star by Andrew Tomlinson.

On the domestic front are Fanny’s saloon owning mother, beautifully played by Jenny Gough, and her two gossiping poker pals, Mrs Strakosh, who turns nosy into an art form, played by Val Tomlinson and the always there Mrs O’Malley, played by Alison Odell.

Mum is looking out for her daughter, and perhaps there is a hint of doubt about Mr Arnstein there, a thought shared with Eddie, after all, Nick seems to have fingers in pies in every corner of the globe which should have alarm bells at least tinkling.

With Fanny and Nick married, Fanny a huge star, living on a Long Island estate, everything in the garden is rosy . . . until the parade doesn’t just get rained on, it is hit with a hurricane and Fanny’s world is turned upside down.

Fussing around are the helpers, Fanny’s assistant Emma, a quietly reassuring performance from Laura Hinton and, trying to keep all the balls in the air, John, the stage manager, played by Josef Hammond.

We open with a radiant Fanny staring into a dressing room mirror reflecting on her life from that first moment when she wanted to go on stage and Mrs Strakosh warned against it for the simple reason Fanny was . . . well . . . If a girl isn’t pretty. And, in truth, the real Fanny was never a stunner, no Mary Pickford or Clara Bow, her contemporaries, but in the USA she was a star and was still a star when she died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1951, aged 59.


Paul Atkins gives us a measured, considerate Nicky Arnstein

The show gave Streisand two of her signature numbers, the plaintive People and the upbeat Don’t Rain on My Parade, and Bland puts some real emotion in the former and real pizazz in the latter, while her Who Are You Now is simply sad and moving.

Shows of this scale are a bit like icebergs, with more behind the scenes than on stage and here we have an excellent 10 piece orchestra under musical director Rob Norman. Opening night overture had some sound issues but that was soon sorted and then refined in the interval. It is never easy to have the orchestra in a separate room, but Sutton have got it off pat.

Chorus and solos all well balanced and well sung, which is what you need in any musical.

The set is always a masterclass in ingenuity at Sutton which has a black box stage, no wings and a ceiling where most theatres have flies, and once again a collection of curtains, projections and cloths along with easy carry on/off props make it seem a far more expansive set than it really is, thanks to designer Mark Natrass and his team. Especially notable was the fold down fold up grand staircase at the back.

Costumes were spectacular, and fashionable for the age organised by co director Emily Armstrong and Bland, while the follow spot operators after a searching start, settled down into hitting their targets, highlighting singers in dramatic moments.

Live sound, worked by Seren Hatch and Rita Crawshaw, worked well within David Ashton’s sound design, Ashton also involved in lighting design with directors Armstrong and Dexter Whitehead.

The last time I saw the musical it was with Sheridan Smith at the Hippodrome who was then outshone by understudy Natasha J Barnes when the show arrived at Wolverhampton Grand and this production is within touching distance of that level, it is that good.

It is not just amateur theatre but theatre at it’s best and when word gets around it could well be the hottest ticket in town. To 01-07-23.

Roger Clarke


Sutton Arts Theatre

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