They don't come much more iconic than Barbra Streisand and Joan Rivers, so the idea of putting them together for a fictionalised look at what might have happened when they were together seems like a recipe for success. That is just what the cleverly titled The Funny Girls (one of them was a comedian, the other was in Funny Girl, get it?) have done. Fresh from a limited run in Wimbledon last month, it has now moved to Upstairs at the Gatehouse where you can catch it over the next few weeks. Now I've always adored Joan Rivers and what self respecting gay man doesn't love a bit of Barbra, so the very idea of this show piqued my interest. But could it possibly live up to the calibre of two legends?
Based on an urban myth about a "lesbian play" Joan Rivers claimed to have done with Barbra Streisand called Seaweed, The Funny Girls sets the scene for the first act before a performance while the two bicker and bond while deciding whether to perform for the audience of eight. In actual fact, the pair did work together but on a different play called Driftwood. Still, who needs reality when fiction can be so much more fun? if theatre is escapism then this is the perfect way to lose yourself in a harmless bit of joy that still pays tribute to two bonafide stars as opposed to raining on their parade.
Mia Tomlinson plays Joan Rivers, having the unenviable task of attempting to recreate her iconic style and cutting nature. Thankfully, Mia rises to the occasion, thriving as she mocks herself in a self-deprecating series of jokes, while showing moments of tenderness when a sliver of emotion is hinted at. Rosanna Harris plays the complete opposite as Barbra Streisand, demonstrating a fantastic versatility as the character changes across both acts. Whether playing the shy, quiet girl in the first act or the cocksure diva in the second act, Rosanna exhibits an enormous stage presence that feels fitting to the woman she is playing. She also gets a moment to show off an exemplary singing voice, leaving the audience wanting more.
Written by Roy Smiles, the dialogue is consistently witty and clever, with the pair constantly bickering and coming up with some brilliant barbed insults. You would hope that a show called The Funny Girls would be just that, and thankfully it is - with many a laugh out loud moment littered across the performance. A simple set is all that is needed as the two stars fill the scenes with their incredible acting (and a quick costume change) - one scene with the two mimicking their Jewish mothers is a real highlight. Themes of feminism and beauty are touched upon throughout the piece, providing more depth on to something that may have seemed relatively shallow at face value.
Very much a play of two halves, when the action leaps forward a decade for the second act, it breathes new life into a performance the audience are already invested in. With the changing in dynamic between the pair as Joan sits in the shadow of Barbra's enormous success, this gives way to fantastic character development for both of them. As the show nears its conclusion, it runs the risk of descending into farce, though this is quickly rectified with a sweet end that is ultimately satisfying.
The first act of The Funny Girls sets itself with the two women appearing in a "bad play" (their words, not mine). Luckily, this couldn't be further from the truth. Two incredible actresses who do a great job of filling the large shoes they have stepped in, performing an utterly captivating script makes this one to watch. While this show may still be playing relatively small venues (at least with an audience of more than 8 people), the vast amount of potential this has leads me to believe that will soon be a memory as The Funny Girls starts to enjoy success fitting of the two legendary women the play portrays.
The Funny Girls is at Upstairs at the Gatehouse until November 21st. Tickets from https://www.upstairsatthegatehouse.com/