Funny Girl opened its West End season on April 20. On May 10, Sheridan Smith’s indisposition saw her depart the production for an unspecified time.

Natasha J BarnesIf you deduct the night when the production was halted for “technical difficulties”, then Smith apparently had performed the role of Fanny Brice 18 times before her leave of absence.

Natasha J Barnes, on the other hand, has played Fanny Brice over 60 times.

As things currently stand, Smith is expected back in the Savoy Theatre on July 11. Assuming she does, she will presumably play the role until October, easily clocking up thirty performances in the role on the West End.

The reason the number of performances given by each performer is important is because of the Olivier Awards.

To be eligible for consideration in any category, a production or performer, at least as far as one can work out, must have opened within the dates specified (Funny Girl will be eligible for the 2017 Awards) and have played 30 performances.

It is unclear whether “opened” in that context means “started performances” or “had its press night”. It is presumably the latter, but it may not be.

There may be other qualifying circumstances, but I am not aware of them.

Funny Girl began previews on April 9. Assuming Smith performed the role of Fanny Brice in all previews, and assuming each Wednesday and Saturday of the preview period there were matinees, she would have played, it seems,  12 previews. Added to the performances since opening, then, Smith would have reached the required 30 performances.

imageHowever, it would seem both farcical and illogical for previews to be counted. If a show played three months of previews, opened and then closed in two days, one would not expect it to be worthy of consideration for the Olivier Awards.

No.

Surely the rules of the Olivier Awards are meant to ensure that only productions and performances which reach the benchmark of thirty days from official opening night/press night are capable of consideration.

In which case, regardless of what happens on July 11 or afterwards, an unprecedented situation awaits the Olivier Award judging panel.

At present, only Barnes can be nominated in the category of Best Actress in a Musical. Smith has not performed the role enough times to qualify.

Having seen the production – again – at the Savoy last Friday, there is no doubt in my mind. Without question, Barnes should be nominated.

Natasha J BarnesBarnes is an unqualified triumph in the role: fresh, invigorating, funny, and completely adorable. She makes the entire company shine in reflected glory and all of the cast work extremely well with her, especially Darius Campbell and Marilyn Cutts, who, in my opinion, gave far, far better performances with Barnes than they ever did with Smith.

For whatever reason, the whole Funny Girl company seems united, happy and terrifically hard-working. The show with Barnes works in a way it simply didn’t with Smith.

Saying this involves no ill-will to Smith. She is a remarkable and charming performer. She was the best Elle Woods of any I ever saw in Legally Blonde, either here or on Broadway, and her staggeringly good performance in Flare Path demonstrated her considerable skills as a dramatic actress on the stage.

Natasha J BarnesShe also gave a very credible turn as Hedda Gabler for the Old Viv, and,  Judi Dench and Audra McDonald aside, the number of actors who can triumph as musical theatre stars as well as serious dramatic performers is small.

Indeed, I doubt there is anyone who could pull off both Elle Woods and Hedda Gabler as well as Smith did.

But not every role suits every actor. Smith’s Titania in the very poor Michael Grandage production of A Midsummers Night’s Dream was, at best, passable. It was simply not the right role for her; she would have been far better as either Helena or Hermia.

And no matter how much people may want it to be otherwise, the role of Fanny Brice is not a good match for Smith. The very attributes which made her such a perfect Elle Woods conspire against her being a perfect Fanny Brice. Equally, she cannot convince as dowdy, she doesn’t master the Jewish schtick, and her voice is not a good vehicle for the biggest, brightest numbers in the show.

Ben Brantley, probably the most influential theatre critic in the musical theatre world, rightly or wrongly, thought along somewhat similar lines when he saw Smith perform the role at the Menier Chocolate Factory Theatre.

Natasha J BarnesOn the other hand, Barnes is a natural fit for the role: she is supremely engaging, quirky and funny; makes the schtick seem utterly natural; and can sing the big numbers with a fervent passion, a ringing, brilliant effervescent power which truly puts the thought of Barbra Streisand out of your mind (if it was there). It is a stellar achievement, a break-out star turn.

And, of course, it is such against all the odds – because Barnes was never properly rehearsed into the role.

She is not playing the Brice she could be; she is covering Smith’s Brice. Especially in the first Act – her vocal pyrotechnics aside – she keeps very faithful to the directorial template for Smith’s Brice.

At the Menier Chocolate Factory Theatre, Barnes did much the same in Act Two. Last Friday at the Savoy, however, there were clear differences in Act Two, as Barnes – no doubt from the confidence gained by acclaimed performance after acclaimed performance – has gone slightly off-piste from the Smith Brice – all for the better.

Act Two makes more sense for Barnes’ Brice the way she now plays it. It’s more coherent; it’s moving from an understudy performance to her own vibrant and wholly successful performance.

So, Barnes seems to have found herself in the position of being eligible to be nominated for an Olivier Award for a performance that is not truly hers as she did not have what Smith had – rehearsals dedicated to making her the best Fanny Brice she could be. Barnes has achieved what she has  largely on her own.

Her achievement really is the kind of achievement awards are designed to recognise and celebrate. The Olivier Awards are no exception.

Natasha J BarnesIf Smith does return on July 11 and completes the season, she will be eligible for nomination in the same category as Barnes for the same role in the same production.

I may be wrong, but this situation appears completely unprecedented.

The closest to this situation, it seems, occurred in 2003, when Joanna Riding won the Olivier Award for Best Actress in a Musical for her performance as Eliza Dolittle, despite the fact that Martine McCutcheon – around whom that production of My Fair Lady was fashioned – had won that award in the previous year for that role in that production.

If Smith does return on July 11 and completes the required 30 performances since the production officially opened, then there is no reason why she couldn’t or shouldn’t be nominated as Best Actress in a Musical – but that’s a question for the Olivier panels.

In any event, there are two things that seem quite clear:

(a)     If Smith does not return to the role on July 11, or never completes 30 performances post April 20, she should not be nominated for an Olivier Award; and

(b)      Barnes should be nominated for an Olivier Award regardless of whatever happens with Smith.

Barnes should no longer be regarded as the understudy or the cover. She is Fanny Brice and has been for over double the number of performances apparently necessary to qualify her for nomination.

Natasha J BarnesScores of people at the Savoy last Friday were disgruntled and annoyed that Barnes was on and Smith was not. But by the time she had sung I’m The Greatest Star, Barnes had wholly won the grumblers over. She got tremendous, warm and heartfelt applause after every number, and a rightly deserved standing ovation at the end of the show.

The feeling in the auditorium was similar to that when Imelda Staunton took her bows in Gypsy. Everyone knew they were privileged to see something world class and, probably, unbeatable. Sure, it was expected of Staunton; Barnes was and is a wonderful surprise.

Natasha J BarnesIt’s the difference between seeing a star in a show and seeing a show make a star out of an actor who makes the show soar. Quite a difference.

And one the Oliver Awards should, nay, must acknowledge.

If Barnes is not nominated for Best Actress in a Musical in the 2017 Olivier Awards, their credibility will be destroyed. Pure and simple.

Reward Barnes for her professionalism and skill.  The theatre should recognise greatness when it walks on stage and delivers a barnestorming (sorry – that pun was irresistible) performance for the history books.

Don’t rain on Barnes’ parade. Nominate her for her extraordinary performance as Fanny Brice. Because, importantly, doing so is no reflection on Smith or her performance; nominating Barnes would not diminish anything Smith has herself achieved.

The nomination would be just about Natasha J Barnes. Rightly.

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Stephen Collins
With years of experience on both sides of the curtain, Stephen Collins has worked as an actor, singer, director, producer and casting consultant, indulging his passion for live theatre. Occasionally a media lawyer, who has worked in-house for the likes of Channel 4 and The Sunday Times, he can usually be found in an audience. In 2014 and 2015, he was lead critic for Britishtheatre.com. He thinks the West End and London is the centre of the theatrical universe (sorry Broadway!), but fears it's not possible to see absolutely everything that’s on there. He doesn’t stop trying though. Cocktails help when it all gets too much.