Writer: Roy Smiles
Director: Michael Strassen
The Funny Girls, about the relationship between Barbra Streisand and Joan Rivers, isn’t as funny as it could be. Jokes come thick and fast, but precious few of them get real laughs from the audience. The characters are so overdone that any nuanced humour gets lost in the constant quips about Jewish mothers and big noses.
Streisand and Rivers are backstage in on off-off-off-Broadway show in Brooklyn in a theatre that only seats 20 people in its two rows of seating. The two women are early on in their careers. Babs is not even 20, and is dating Bobby and trying not to worry that he wears mauve and has seen Judy Garland in concert 28 times. Joan at the age of 26 is already married and already jaded.
Streisand’s mother has come to see the show in which Rivers plays a lesbian stalker. In fear of her mother’s reaction Streisand begs Rivers to change the word ‘lesbian’ to ‘thespian’, but she refuses as also in the audience are New York’s premiers casting agents.
But the story hardly matters; Roy Smiles’ play is more a camp barrage of put-downs and wisecracks, so relentless that it some of it goes by in a blur. Streisand is, at first, the innocent one of the pair, and Rosanna Harris gives her a streak of youthful vulnerability that is endearing. However, in the second half, set 10 years later in 1969 when Streisand is a star, she’s arrogant and unlikeable. Harris gives off a suitably icy chill.
There is little character development for Joan, and Mia Tomlinson plays her up to the hilt, but unfortunately she channels Rising Damp’s Rigsby as much as the American comedienne. Tomlinson’s constant gurning and grimacing must be as exhausting to perform as it is for the audience to watch. It could be quite funny if there weren’t so much of it and instead saved for special moments where it would create more of an impact. We only see Rivers as she would be on stage or on TV: acerbic and sharp. There is no sense of the woman outside of her TV persona.
This should be comedy gold, and perhaps it will be when the actors have settled into their roles more. They certainly look the part, and in Jean Gray’s costumes the two women uncannily resemble Streisand and Rivers, with Streisand’s spangled trouser suit even getting a wolf-whistle from the audience.
But at the moment there’s just too much shtick.
Runs until 24 September and then at Upstairs at the Gatehouse 26 October -21 November 2021