Both personally and professionally 2016 was a difficult year for Sheridan Smith, but she tells Elizabeth Allen why she once again preparing to be everyone’s favourite Funny Girl.
This time last year Sheridan Smith had just received the reviews of her career. Her portrayal of Fanny Brice in Funny Girl in a new West End production had wowed critics and further cemented Smith’s reputation as one of the brightest talents of British theatre. And then everything unraveled.
When the Epworth-born actress pulled out of a number of performances amid reports she was suffering from exhaustion, those same papers who had written glowingly of her a few weeks earlier suddenly went in search of unflattering photographs which were run alongside editorials suggesting Smith had been drunk on stage and her star was about to come crashing to earth.
The reaction was perhaps understandable. In acting circles, ‘exhaustion’ tends to be a byword for a drug and alcohol-fuelled meltdown and readers like nothing more than the tale of an out-of-control celebrity, but Smith had every reason to feel she had been treated poorly.
At the time her father, Colin, had just been diagnosed with cancer, the same disease which had killed her brother Julian a decade earlier. They are a close lot, the Smiths, and Sheridan vented some of her frustration on Twitter.
It might not have been enough to quash the rumours, but it did at least allow her to have her say and in return she received a wave of support and love back from her legion of fans.
Colin died at Christmas and having been allowed to do her grieving in private, today Smith is in a much happier place. Funny Girl has just gone out on tour – it comes to Bradford’s Alhambra in June – and it has lost none of its West End power.
At the start of the run Smith played three sold-out nights at the 2,000-seat Manchester Palace Theatre and as she ticks off another dozen venues she seems to be enjoying her moment in the spotlight again.
“I am just really looking forward to bring a show I love to people who might not have been able to make it to London,” she says having just played Edinburgh. “I think it is really important for theatre to look outwards and not just be centred around London. It might not sound strange, but touring is a new experience for me and I wanted to do it partly because it is interesting to see how different places respond to the show and I think it will make it feel even more live.”
It’s not only the touring which is new. While Smith is sharing the lead role of Fanny Brice with Natasha Barnes, who stepped in as understudy last year, the rest of the company is new. It means that when she arrives back in Yorkshire, American musical theatre star Chris Peluso will be playing no-good gambler Nick Arnstein.
“Creatively, it feels fantastic to be working with someone like him,” she says. “He’s such a brilliant actor. Not to mention working with a whole new company. I may know the show well, but it’s always exciting to explore it with a new cast. It brings freshness to the production as you constantly see things through new eyes and discover it together.”
It was Barbra Streisand who brought Brice to people’s attention in the 1968 film adaptation, but Sheridan wasn’t worried about any comparisons. The musical about the Brooklyn musical hall star, born in the final years of the 19th century, who charmed Broadway with her uncompromising kookiness is one Smith has always loved.
“Fanny Brice was a woman ahead of her time. She broke the mould for female entertainers at a time when it was predominantly male performances. Not only that, she was a brilliant comic. Her lack of vanity made her unique and very special. Playing someone like her is a privilege and of course the songs are just brilliant.
“My favourite is probably the title song because it’s sad and yet uplifting. But who doesn’t love the classics like People and Don’t Rain on My Parade and the comedy numbers are really fun to perform too. It’s great to enjoy them on stage with the full company, for me that’s a really special part of the evening.”
Smith grew up in a musical family. Her parents performed as the country music duo the Daltons and having joined them on stage from an early age it seemed inevitable that she would follow in their footsteps.
While she never went to drama school, she was a member of the National Youth Theatre for a number of years and got her TV break in the sitcom Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps. While it was clear even back then that she was blessed with comic timing, it’s her sheer versatility which marks her out from her acting peers.
As well as comedy and musicals, she has also flexed her straight acting muscles in a string of critically acclaimed dramas which have seen her play real life characters. There was her Bafta-winning portrayal of Ronnie Biggs’ wife Charmian, then came Cilla Black and at the start of this year she appeared in the BBC drama The Moorside, based on the bogus kidnapping of Shannon Matthews from the Dewsbury Moor estate. Smith played Julie Bushby, the friend of Karen Matthews who led the futile community search and, whatever doubts there were about the merits of mining such recent past for entertainment, her performance was flawless.
“I love researching each character. When you are playing real life characters, you can prepare for the role more thoroughly. You can research the backstory, find examples of how your character behaved, how they thought, moved and even spoke.
“However, it does come with huge responsibility. To some extent you are expected to remain true to how they were, but there is no point doing a simple impression of someone. It is crucial to find a balance between portraying the character truthfully and putting your own stamp on the role and bringing something personal to it. It’s a difficult challenge, but it is one I really enjoy.”
After the Funny Girl tour ends this summer, Smith will be heading back to the small screen. She’s already signed the contract for a new ITV series called Clean Break in which she stars as Sam, one of an invisible army of cleaners on a zero hours contract who mop, sweep and vacuum in the early hours. Struggling with an on-line gambling addiction, she realises she has access to lucrative Stock Market information which if used correctly could be the answer to all her prayers.
It might sound implausible, but no doubt Smith will make it entirely believable. It’s what she does so well and once that show has wrapped, the theatre will no doubt come calling again.
“I love theatre because you get to go on a journey with the audience,” she says. “The butterflies and the excitement are palpable. Every says that in the theatre every performance is unique, but it’s true. There is something exhilarating about knowing that the show will be different each night.”
Funny Girl, Bradford Alhambra, June 6 to 10. There will be a signed performance on June 8. 01274 432000, bradford-theatres.co.uk