The Funny Girls, New Wimbledon Theatre Studio
Review: The Funny Girls, New Wimbledon Theatre Studio
Jenny Booth reviews this tale of Barbra Streisand and Joan Rivers
It was a tall tale that the acerbic queen of US comedy Joan Rivers was gleefully fond of repeating: how she was first spotted by a theatrical agent the night she was playing a stalker in a lesbian drama opposite another young Jewish New York girl – both equally desperately to escape from their overbearing mothers – in a shabby theatre so far off Broadway that “it took three trains, a bus and a canoe” to reach. And the other Jewish girl was, of course, a 19-year-old Barbra Streisand. There were grains of truth in the tale, but most of it was Rivers’ fertile imagination. When a story is that good, however, does it matter if it is true? From Rivers’s urban myth, writer Roy Smiles has crafted a wise-cracking comedy in two acts: first, backstage on the night in question, as Rivers bosses and sweet-talks a reluctant Streisand into going on; and second, as the two meet again in Streisand’s opulent dressing room in Vegas ten years later, by which time she is a singing mega-star and Rivers is a fixture on Johnny Carson’s popular Tonight Show on TV.
Director Michael Strassen is best known for his intelligent, original productions in musical theatre [Billy], but is no stranger to drama. The Funny Girls is a stylish production, elegantly lit and costumed, with two vibrant performers with strong stage presence. Both Rosanna Harris (Streisand) and Mia Tomlinson (Rivers) pass the first important test – their accents are credible, though Tomlinson’s has more twang. Harris unleashes her rich singing voice briefly at the end of Act One and that too is convincing.
The script cracks along in a volley of potentially hilarious one-liners that demand to be batted to and fro at tremendous pace, as the women’s emotions – nervousness, jealousy, ambition, frustration, hilarity – swoop up and down like a wheeling flock of birds. This high-tension, verbal choreography is difficult to get right, and the pacing on press night was a little off, with pauses that allowed the tension to sag and drained some of the comedy out of the exchanges – hopefully something that can be tuned up for later performances. Harris’s Streisand appears facially a little impassive in the first act by contrast with Tomlinson, who contorts her features alarmingly as Rivers.
In the second act the brakes are off, as the two super-confident women duel verbally – Rivers jealous of Streisand’s iconic status, Streisand nettled by Rivers’s barbs. In a suitably absurd climax, the two resort to a cushion-fight to relieve their feelings. It is a light-hearted show with the potential to be very funny indeed.
17 – 24 September, New Wimbledon Theatre Studio.
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Mia Tomlinson and Rosanna Harris, The Funny Girls, (c) Mark Senior