Legend has it that back in the early days of their careers comedienne Joan Rivers and singing sensation Barbra Streisand appeared together in a show as lesbian lovers – two embryonic superstars that no-one had yet heard of. Roy Smiles’ The Funny Girls imagines their relationship at the time of that show, before fast-forwarding to a meeting ten years later in Las Vegas where, although Rivers is starring nationally on the Johnny Carson Show, Streisand is even more successful, selling out the house and now a global superstar.
This show is full of quickfire jokes with ample funny moments, often drawing on original material from Rivers to sustain the comedy. There are lots of laughs about Jewish mothers, careers in the theatre, and the role of women in the 1950s. However, some are uncomfortably anachronistic: quips about Jews, Nazis and gays are a little in your face today, although historically they’re the kind of topics she might have used. Mia Tomlinson as Rivers dominates the first half of the show with a depiction that is focussed and often funny, but doesn’t really get past a caricature of the performer to explore the woman beneath. It’s also quite full on. It took me some time to adjust to the peculiar physical portrayal, particularly an angry grimace that recurred frequently and seemed somewhat cartoonish. (I went home and watched some video of Rivers but couldn’t place this as a trait, so I don’t know where it comes from.) Rosanna Harris plays a more vulnerable young Streisand, second fiddle to Rivers, until a moment of glory in the first half when she opens her mouth to sing and suddenly dominates the stage, giving a huge clue as to the success her future holds. Harris has a strong, impressive voice which could perhaps have been used to more advantage in the second half of the show, when the power placement is reversed. Her performance is largely cool and a little understated, perhaps like the icon herself, but would benefit from more oomph to keep pace with the relentless Tomlinson. I felt the relationship came across a bit like Abbott and Costello – a straight guy and a slightly OTT physical comedian.
It seems odd to complain that a show called The Funny Girls used too much comedy, but in its effort to be hilarious the actual relationship between the women is allowed to drift away: there are very few moments of humanity and connection between the pair as wave after wave of smart cracks and anecdotes overwhelm the narrative. Even at the end as they play-fight before walking off as old friends there’s no sense of spontaneity or comradeship; it feels rather constructed.
The lighting by Andrew Exeter does a fine job of adding texture to the production, and I’d have been happy to see more of this to help break up otherwise fairly static scenes. Additionally, the lovely costumes and set design by Jean Gray absolutely hit the mark, placing us firmly in the time periods depicted.
All in all, this is a pleasant evening with some fun laughs, largely due to that original material from Joan Rivers, but the show offers caricatures of celebrities rather than an insightful portrayal of the rise of two women from similar backgrounds. It maybe still has a little work to do.
Written by: Roy Smiles
Directed By: Michael Strassen
Set & Costume by: Jean Gray
Lighting design by: Andrew Exeter
Produced by: Thomas Hopkins in association with Debbie Chazen & Guy Chapman