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Samantha Spiro On … Playing Funny Girls

Samantha Spiro is an award-winning actress currently starring as Fanny Brice in Funny Girl at Chichester’s Minerva theatre. After rising to prominence opposite Penelope Keith in Glyn and It, her credits include playing Barbara Windsor in Terry Johnson’s Cleo, Camping, Emmanuelle and Dick at the National Theatre and in the subsequent TV adaptation Cor Blimey!, and her Olivier and Whatsonstage.com award-winning performance in Merrily We Roll Along at the Donmar in 2000.

Funny Girl is a musical based on the private and professional life of American comedienne Fanny Brice. It was famously done in the 60s as a film with Barbra Streisand and has largely been left alone since then, so we’re very lucky to be doing the revival in Chichester.

I found something familiar about the character of Fanny having played Barbara Windsor in Cleo, Camping, Emmanuelle and Dick at the National. Both these women had less successful personal than professional lives, and showbusiness seemed to get them through the scrapes. That’s one of the themes of Funny Girl, that Fanny is more than willing to throw it all in for Nick Arnstein, the love of her life, but in the end it’s that great doctor theatre that gets her through. I think it’s a wonderful moment in the show when she realises she’s better on stage than she is in her private life.

I get the feeling that both Barbara Windsor and Fanny Brice were originals, the first of their types. Barbara was so sexy, so funny and so unusual when she first burst onto the scene – she had a real cheeky charm. She was one of the first ‘geezer’ birds, and many have now followed in her footsteps. Fanny Brice on the other hand didn’t rely on her sex appeal. There was almost something quite masculine about her. She played many male parts, and must have been one of the first of the Yiddish, New York comic tradition.

Before this project started, I barely new what Fanny Brice looked like, but as soon as I started researching her I immediately fell in love with her. Her characters were always identifiable and they were often based on people she knew. She didn’t live up to the ‘depressed comedian’ stereotype. She made a few wrong choices and might’ve gone for the wrong man, but she wasn’t a tortured soul. She was very much someone who people wanted to be around and took life by the reins. She’s become one of my real heroes.

I did watch the film about two years ago when we first talked about doing this, and I remember it being very funny and having great songs, but it didn’t impact me emotionally in the same way as the show script. In the stage version you get a much greater sense of the vaudevillian period than you do in the film, which is very much rooted in the 60s. In the film it’s the relationship that’s in sharp focus, whereas on stage it’s much more of an all-round experience.

I made sure to relieve myself of any responsibility in terms of audience expectations before rehearsals began. Of course they have experiences and expectations borne out of watching Barbra Streisand in the role, but I’m completely different and as soon as the show starts I think they know they’re in for a very different experience.

I’ve certainly had a history of portraying funny women. Glyn and It with Penelope Keith was my first big break, and my character in that, Clara Bow, had similarities to this story – a Brooklyn girl made good in the Hollywood star system. That was about 15 years ago now – time flies!

Winning the Olivier and Whatsonstage.com awards for Merrily We Roll Along meant an awful lot to me – they suddenly become very important once you’re up for one! It was a wonderful job and winning the awards was a great pat on the back. I’d love to make a return to the London stage in the near future, and we’re hopeful that Funny Girl might make it to the West End.

- Samantha Spiro was speaking to Theo Bosanquet

Funny Girl is at the Minerva Theatre, Chichester until 14 June 2008.


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