It’s no wonder that Funny Girl hasn’t been revived in the West End since the original production of 1966, starring Barbra Streisand – who starred in the film version two years later. The show revolves around the performance of the central character – it’s an iconic role that demands an iconic star. Even more so than its composer Jule Styne’s other major musical Gypsy, so splendidly revived in the West End last year starring Imelda Staunton. The role of Fanny Brice is also difficult to play – not just because you are on stage practically the whole evening – but because you have to convey the depth of a character who is so outwardly funny yet inwardly insecure. Like so many stars, Brice enjoyed enormous success and acclaim on stage, but found her private life, including her relationship with Nicky Arnstein, a gambler and yet a charming and loveable rogue, more challenging. Brice became a star in the Florenz Ziegfeld Follies in 1910, headlining and becoming a comedy favourite in that and other shows produced by the biggest producer of the era. Brice was a fabulous comedienne and impersonator – physically she had an individual look and brought out the comedy in everything she did – and we see her developing her act, both in audition and in performance.

But to play a great star, you need a great star. And the Menier Chocolate Factory production of Funny Girl – which sold out its entire run at the intimate Southwark venue in hours and which transfers to the Savoy Theatre in April – has a truly great British star as Brice. Sheridan Smith returns to the world of musical theatre – and indeed to the venue where she starred in Little Shop of Horrors ten years ago. Since that show, Smith has developed her talent through a wide range of television, film and stage roles. Let’s be clear – her talent has no equal amongst her generation and she is a true force of nature that drives this piece from beginning to end. It is very hard – very hard indeed – to take your eyes off Smith’s Brice. You route for her as she tries to get a break in showbiz, you laugh at her priceless routines, you marvel at her success and you cry for her when she gets let down by her man. Smith brings a phenomenal yet natural acting talent to the role – she seems to instinctively embody the character of Brice and just ‘is’ the character, and she uses her eyes, every muscle of her face, her poise and her bewitching smile to convey the depth of the character and the narrative of the piece. Wisely, Smith eschews any sense of Streisand in her portrayal, and she lets the show’s most famous numbers ‘People’ and ‘Don’t rain on my parade’ grow out of the narrative for their respective scenes.

In such a one-woman vehicle headed by a megawatt star like Smith, it’s difficult for anyone else to get a look in, but the rest of the cast provide admirable support throughout. Darius Campbell’s Nicky Arnstein towers above Smith physically and is the perfect charmer as he weaves his way in and out of Brice’s life, turning up at opening nights before leaving her for months at a time on his gambling jaunts, before letting her down even more. Marilyn Cutts brings her own lovely charm to the role of Fanny’s mother (with Gay Soper and Valda Aviks enjoying their scenes as her card-playing mates), and Joel Montague gives strong emotional support throughout as Brice’s friend and mentor Eddie Ryan. Good to see Maurice Lane – who starred in the original production on stage with Streisand – too.

But this is Smith’s show and this extraordinary production of Funny Girl will surely go down in the musical history books for her breathtaking interpretation, indeed reinvention, of the lead role. The show and story still feels familiar to those who have seen the film, yet is new and fresh (including a revised book by Harvey Fierstein). There’s a serene intimacy to it at the Menier Chocolate Factory that will hopefully transfer onto the bigger stage of the Savoy…and then to Broadway if the theatre gods have any justice. When Smith sings ‘I’m the greatest star’, it’s truly hard not to believe every word. For her Funny Girl, she truly is.