Natasha Barnes in Funny Girl
Natasha Barnes in Funny Girl
© Manuel Harlan

Cast your mind back to the UK premiere production of Spring Awakening in 2009 and you'll be reminded of the debuts of some of today's most exciting UK stage actors; Lucy May Barker (Sweeney Todd, Chichester), Jamie Muscato (Dogfight, Southwark Playhouse) and Evelyn Hoskins (Carrie, Southwark Playhouse) spring to mind as performers who are enjoying successful careers seven years after first treading the boards at the Lyric Hammersmith. Another actress who made her first professional stage appearance in that production was Natasha Barnes.

After a promising start Barnes' career has been a little chequered. She's starred in productions of Chess at the Landor and The Boy Who Fell into a Book in Scarborough, but it's fair to say she has struggled to find a breakthrough role to put her 'on the map'. Until now.

Last year she bumped into Michael Mayer - her director on Spring Awakening - who told her he was mounting a revival of Funny Girl at the Menier Chocolate Factory. 'I'd do anything to be a Jew right now' she joked to the American Tony Award-winner, rueing another missed opportunity. Mayer then invited her to audition for the show to cover Fanny Brice the following day: "I instantly put down my gin and picked up a pint of water. I went at 10am the next day, having just done a rock show, did 16 bars and got the job on the spot. It was mad."

Fast forward several months to March this year and Barnes was called upon for the first time to step in for Sheridan Smith as the show's lead. "It was ten past seven when I got the call. I'd obviously rehearsed the role but we'd never done a cover run" she tells me, "I went pale, I was terrified." Smith dramatically pulled out of the final week of the run at the 190-seater Menier following her father's cancer diagnosis. It wouldn't be the last time that Barnes would have to step into the lead role.

Even though this was the first West End production of the show since its 1966 premiere, there's no arguing that the majority of tickets sold for this production were on the back of Smith's casting, so it was no surprise to hear of people calling for refunds when she pulled out - to which the producers obliged. I ask her if this upset her: "I was disappointed for them because I had booked Gypsy to see Imelda Staunton a few months before. It's just something you do, you admire someone's work and you want to see them in a show."

When producers announced last month that Smith would take further time off from the show's West End run at the Savoy, Barnes found herself back in the spotlight, this time in front of 1200 people, and says she had to put a lot of trust in the audience: "Going out and telling the audience that you're 'the greatest star' and asking them 'not to rain on your parade' is perhaps the best thing for the situation I was in.

"I have to have faith in the audience. Every time I go out there I have to hope and believe that they will forget [I'm not Sheridan] within the first 20 minutes, that they'll find a way to enjoy the show."

Barnes' journey to West End leading lady has been less than conventional, she didn't attend drama school and the following years have been a mixture of 'sporadic' runs in shows and jobs including teaching and hostessing in a posh restaurant in Bayswater: "People would throw their coats at me and I just used to think 'it's alright, one day you'll pay £125 to see me in the West End'."

And people really have been spending that much to see her. Barnes has built up her own adoring fanbase who had perhaps originally booked to see Smith but have since heralded the performance of her understudy. Critics' reviews have been equally superlative with the Telegraph's Dominic Cavendish describing Barnes as 'a sensation in her own right'.

And what of the future? I ask if there's any roles she's dying to play: "Do you know what? I really want to be Carole King [in Beautiful]. As much as I'd love to create a role, if someone said 'we'll give you any role for a year', it would be Carole King. Maybe it's following the Jewish Brooklyn thing, I don't know, but I love those songs and her story."

Well considering the rave reviews she's received for her Fanny Brice, 'I just can't help believing' she'll have the pick of the West End when the curtain comes down on Funny Girl in October.

Funny Girl runs at the Savoy Theatre until 8 October 2016.