Natasha Barnes on stepping in to the role of Fanny Brice
PUBLISHED: 10:06 23 September 2016 | UPDATED: 10:06 23 September 2016
As a little girl in Ringwood, Natasha Barnes dreamt of becoming a West End star… here she talks to Peter White about how her dreams came true this summer when she stepped in to the role of Fanny Brice
How times have changed for Natasha Barnes, one of the most talked-about stage stars of the country right now. She was seriously thinking of giving up her acting career - times were tough, and she sensed her dreams of becoming a star were fast disappearing.
But fortunately for her, and her ever-growing band of admirers, fate took a hand, and this summer she suddenly rose from obscurity to capture the attention of the whole of the famous West End theatre world.
The girl who grew up in Ringwood dreaming that one day she would tread the famous yellow brick of her idol Judy Garland, instead stepped into the role of Fanny Brice in the classic musical ‘Funny Girl’ when leading lady and revered actress Sheridan Smith fell ill.
Fears that the audiences would turn their back on the production without Sheridan quickly disappeared as Natasha wowed them during two exhilarating months, earning rave reviews for her breathtaking performances.
She smiled: “I’m still pinching myself at the magnitude of what has happened - it must have been written in the stars.”
But amid the dazzling bright lights of London’s Savoy Theatre, Natasha has not forgotten her roots, and is never likely to. The 26-year-old said: “I grew up in The New Forest, and when I’m away I really miss the rural element. It is still very much my oasis when I need to get away from London - it is always the first place I head for.
“It was brilliant growing up so close to the Forest and the coast. Summer holidays were spent on the beach, and at weekends it was all about walking the dog among the trees.”
Natasha attended Ringwood Infant and Junior Schools, before moving up to the town’s Comprehensive School. She recalls that the first time she stepped on stage was at Junior School when she played Lily in a production of ‘Annie’. She said: “It was only a small support part, but I absolutely loved it. But even before that I went to a Thursday night ‘Big Little Theatre School’ based in Bournemouth. Every school report I had said I was a very chatty child, so my parents thought they needed to do something with me.
“I then went to the ‘Big Little’ every Saturday, and was there until I was 18, apart from one year when I had a pony on loan, and did some riding. But that was the nearest I ever came to doing anything else apart from drama.”
In each of her three schools, every time a production was being planned she was first in the queue to be in it. She recalls: “I particularly liked doing the ones at Comprehensive School. I joined the school in Year 7, and it was the same year that the Head of Drama, Mrs de Lancy Green started there, and she began pioneering to make performing arts much better at the school. I think I appeared in all her productions.
“Then a year later Mr. Ian Hawkins joined as Head of Music, and between them they did some big, ambitious productions, which were amazing. It is really nice that both of them have been up to London to see me perform on stage at the Savoy Theatre.”
She continued: “Every time I went on stage at school I felt like a professional, and that is when I probably felt that I could actually be a professional actor. My last appearance at school was playing Anita in ‘West Side Story’ when I was in year 13, and I just loved being the person who could help lead the whole company.
“It has taken me another eight years to get where I am now, but school undoubtedly helped me. I realised there was much more to it than just standing on stage and having a good time. There was a job to do and it was a really rewarding one, so I feel now that all the hard work paid off.”
She admits: “I always wanted to be an actor - I never wanted to be anything else, but that was probably because I was never any good at anything else. I’ve always loved the old school musicals like Doris Day in ‘Calamity Jane’ and sitting watching Judy Garland films with my nan. When I was in my teenage years I got a little bit into the newer stuff like ‘Wicked’, but overall it has always been the old stuff for me.
“I also enjoy watching some of the older actors perform, like Dame Judi Dench and Maggie Smith. By coincident I was also a big admirer of Barbra Streisand, who was the first ‘Funny Girl’ back in 1968.”
Having already appeared in episodes of TV’s ‘Doctors’ and ‘Doc Martin’, Natasha’s big break came when she was still only 18 years old, and had just finished her A Level exams. She decided she wanted to take a gap year and do some work in Ringwood, while also planning trips to London to see some theatre, and then apply to go to drama school a year later when she had saved some money.
“Then I saw an advertisement looking for untrained talent for a production of a rock musical ‘Spring Awakening’ that had been on Broadway, and was coming to London. I thought that would be good audition practice for drama school. So I went along and sort of accidentally got a job,” she said.
“I ended up playing a small part in that and Michael Mayer, who directed it, was also the man who directed Funny Girl. He came over from the United Stated to direct ‘Spring Awakening’, and hadn’t been back again until last year when he came over to see the show. He spotted me and said ‘oh, it’s you, and you have grown up now’!
“That was when he invited me to go to audition for the understudy part of Fanny Brice in ‘Funny Girl’, and he just offered me the job on the spot.”
Natasha waited patiently in the wings until May when suddenly Sheridan Smith had to take a break from the production due to ‘exhaustion and stress’. Natasha said: “I was told at 7.10pm that I would be on stage that night at 8pm, and I hadn’t even had a full run through of the show.
“I went into a bizarre state of shock and there was a lot of adrenalin flowing. I just went on stage and did it, and then thought to myself ‘did I really do that’? I need to do it again! Fanny Brice is not the sort of role that you can do it just once, and go away and say I’ve done that now, because it is such a big part.
“Only now, after more than 60 shows do I feel that I’ve learned her. That first show was probably the biggest impact that anything has ever had on me, but at the same time it was the beginning of a very long story, and I wouldn’t have thought that at the time.”
She continued: “I do feel some guilt, because someone else’s misfortune has led to a great success for me, and as a human being that still never feels entirely correct. But in terms of protecting the work of the production and what we have created in the company, I’m just really pleased that I could step in and keep the house full. We have been sold out every night, and it’s an amazing feeling to know that people didn’t turn their backs on the production because the star was away for a while.
“Sheridan is a tremendous talent, quite incredible, and deserves to be seen, so I was always looking forward to having her back. But they were a fantastic couple of months, playing the lead role. I imagine I might be on again at some time, and I’ll be ready to jump back in.”
‘Funny Girl’ ends its run at the Savoy Theatre in October, but the production will be touring next year, including almost certainly a spell at Southampton’s Mayflower Theatre. The castings haven’t been announced yet, but Natasha smiled: “There are a few other things going on, so we will have to wait and see. There are some exciting things around the corner, which I can’t talk about at the moment.
“Wherever I go next I think music will always be a big part of my life. So I think it will be musically inclined, but it would also be great to do film at some point, and maybe even go back to TV. It’s strange though because I still keep thinking that I need to get some teaching work lined up, or sort something else out to go to after this job.
“People keep telling me I don’t have to worry because I will get something now. It would be nice to do something that would take me round the country a bit, so I could perhaps end up playing at the Nuffield Theatre or the Mayflower - I would love to do that.
“I often went to the Mayflower and thought it was amazing. I sometimes wondered how I could get to that point in my career.”
Natasha has always had the full support of mum and dad Julie and David, as well as brothers and sister, Jonathan, Joe, Jake and Aimee. Along with many people from Ringwood, all the family have made the pilgrimage to the Savoy to watch their rising star a number of times, apart from Jonathan, who lives in Australia.
Looking to the future, Natasha says: “My greatest interest would be creating a role that one day lots of other girls would say ‘when I grow up I want to play the role that Natasha Barnes created’…the same way that Barbra Streisand created Fanny Brice in Funny Girl.
“I would like to make something new and make an impact on theatre history. That would be huge to me.
“I also love anything biographical, so if they ever do a Judy Garland musical I will be first in the queue!”
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