WITH Nell Gwynn at the King’s, and Funny Girl at the Playhouse, women on stage is a major theme in Edinburgh theatre this week; and what’s striking is how little seems to have changed, in 350 years, in a culture that still often seems prefer its women pretty, decorative, and not too mouthy.
Playhouse, Edinburgh ****
Tron Theatre, Glasgow ****
Oran Mor, Glasgow**
First seen on Broadway in 1964, Jule Styne’s classic musical – with lyrics by Bob Merrill and book by Isobel Lennart – was famously immortalised on film in 1968, with Barbara Streisand in the starring role of Fanny Brice, the Jewish girl from Brooklyn who between 1905 and the 1920s forged herself a remarkable career on the New York stage as a singer and comedienne.
Yet magnificent as Streisand was in the role, there’s something about Sheridan Smith’s gorgeous, passionate performance in the current touring production that seems to take us even closer to the emotional heart of the story of a woman who knows that her wit, and her relatively unconventional looks, make her less of a sexual icon than many female performers; and who can barely believe her luck when the gorgeous professional gambler Nick Arnstein falls in love with her, as deeply as she falls for him.
The story of their romance, their marriage, and their eventual separation is therefore a heart-wrenching one, that goes to the heart of the dilemmas often faced by strong, witty women seeking their match; and in Michael Mayer’s simple, graceful production from the Menier Chocolate Factory, Sheridan Smith brings all her magical star quality to Fanny’s story. The staging is unobtrusively brilliant, the dance is exhilarating, and the supporting performances – above all from Darius Campbell as Arnstein, and Rachel Izen as Fanny’s mother – are flawless; and it’s hardly surprising that this gem of a show, starring a woman of blazing talent whose recent roles range from Cilla Black on television to Hedda Gabler on stage, is attracting capacity crowds to the 3,000-seat Playhouse, every night of the week.
There’s a hint of a theatrical theme, too, in David Leddy’s powerful new 70-minute monologue, Coriolanus Vanishes; but in truth, what Leddy offers here is a portrait of dysfunctional masculinity, or flawed patriarchy, that might draw on the characters of a hundred great stage heroes, from Tamburlaine to Joe Keller, the father in All My Sons. His character, Chris, is a married man with a morally questionable job selling arms to Saudi Arabia, who leaves his wife and recently-adopted son for another man, takes to drink and drugs in toxic quantities, and finds himself plagued by a series of increasingly unbearable tragedies.
On a black-framed stage filled with ever-shifting letter-box shapes through which we view the character, and fierce washes of light in irreconcilable greens, oranges and blues, Leddy makes a brilliant job of conjuring up a character whose life is destroyed by his compulsive self-protective lying, and by his lack of real attachment to anyone. Like Philip Larkin’s poem This Be The Verse, this is a story of how emotional misery and dysfunction is handed on from generation to generation; and how that dysfunction, dressed in its best business suit, often still ends up running our world.
And meanwhile, back on stage, the great Alison Peebles has plenty of fun playing the main character in the latest lunchtime Play, Pie And Pint show. Betty is a dodgy clairvoyant and medium who once had a genuine gift; but now resorts to all the tricks of the trade in order to convince the gullible that she is indeed helping them communicate with their departed loved ones.
In truth, the quality of David Cosgrove’s writing, in Voices In Her Ear, is not really equal to the situation he conjures up; it’s crude, loud, sensational, and generally unconvincing. Yet there’s a vivid dramatic tension here, along with a central performance to treasure; and it’s possible to imagine a revised version of this play that might allow a more searching treatment of the themes it raises, including the question of whether the act of performance almost always involves exploitation – whether of the audience, or of the performer herself, in all her magnificence and vulnerability.
Funny Girl is at the Playhouse today, and at the King’s Theatre, Glasgow, 30 May-3 June. Coriolanus Vanishes is at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow, tonight. Voices In Her Ear is at Oran Mor today, and at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, 25-29 April.