REVIEW: The Funny Girls @ Above The Gatehouse

Brian Butler November 1, 2021

“It’s not where you start, it’s where you finish”, goes the Broadway song , and continues:” and you’re gonna finish on top”. It’s 1959 and a shy teenage girl who sleeps on a friend’s couch and serves in a Chinese restaurant is performing to 8 people a night in a dreadful play in a shabby attic theatre, way,way,way off-Broadway.

Her co-performer, in her mid-20’s, already divorced, is desperate like her friend to make it big time as an actress. Why would we care about these characters in Roy Smiles’ clever and engaging comedy? Well, the first is Barbra Streisand and the second Joan Rivers. The Funny Girls throws them together backstage, where Barbra is refusing to go on stage because her mother, her hardest critic, is going to be out front.

credit Mark Senior

Rivers is desperate to go on, as she has a potential agent in the audience. Oh and Streisand wants Rivers to change her character from a Lesbian to a Thespian to save her mother’s blushes. The Act One tension comes from sharp one-liners and emotional revelations. Will Rivers get Streisand onstage ? Well yes, she will.

Cut to Act Two: ten years later we’re in La Streisand’s opulent Vegas dressing room, and Rivers, now star of Johnny Carson’s Tonight TV show, has been out front. Will their friendship/enmity re-surface? Bet your arse it will. This is a play about jealousy, insecurity, the price of fame and the loneliness for stars at the top of their game.

credit Mark Senior

Rosanna Harris as Barbra is not only a startling look-alike. She’s also a sound-alike, when she bursts into an acapella version of My Man. The hairs stand up all over your body, trust me. Mia Tomlinson as the ace comic Rivers has a harder task ahead of her. Thankfully Smiles gives her the majority of the play’s acidic one-liners and she really grows into the character in Act Two, when each ego engages in a battle royal for superiority. Smiles pulls no punches about Streisand’s arrogance, and the play, directed by Michael Strassen, abounds in Jewish humour. There are side swipes at Mr Streisand – drug-obsessed Elliott Gould, at Johnny Carson and  Elvis.

credit Mark Senior

There’s even a Queer strand to the storyline with constant digs by Rivers about Bobby, Streisand’s Gay boyfriend. But in the end the piece rests on the chemistry between the two giants of entertainment, sharing fame, fortune and unhappiness, travelling along the wafer-thin line between love and hate. Both actresses are truly outstanding and you leave wanting more.

Note to the show’s creators: give Rosanna a belting diva song at the start of Act Two. It would make the play pitch perfect.

The Funny Girls plays at the marvellous Upstairs At The Gatehouse, Highgate until 21 November. Tickets –