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Opening Night

  • Theatre, Musicals
  • Gielgud Theatre, Soho
  • 4 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended
Opening Night, Gielgud Theatre, 2024
Photo: Jan Versweyveld Sheridan Smith

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

Sheridan Smith is superb in Ivo van Hove and Rufus Wainwright’s deliciously odd not-really-a-musical

It is, to be clear, fairly nuts that leftfield European director Ivo van Hove has been allowed to plonk what I can only describe as a leftfield European musical in a big theatre in the middle of London’s glittering West End. 

Presumably the calculation of producers Wessex Grove is that star Sheridan Smith offers enough commercial clout to underwrite the limited run of a show that feels almost entirely unshackled by genre niceties. But there is truly nothing else like ‘Opening Night’ in Theatreland at the moment – not even close.

Like much of Belgian star Van Hove’s output, ‘Opening Night’ is a stage adaptation of a classic arthouse film, in this case John Cassavetes’s 1977 movie of the same name. It concerns the emotional disintegration of Myrtle, a famous actress struggling with alcoholism, the shocking death of a fan, and encroaching middle age – something exacerbated by her inability to connect to ‘The Second Woman’, the Broadway play she is currently rehearsing.

In Van Hove’s adaptation, a camera crew is filming the play’s rehearsals – something that doesn’t have much impact on the plot (most of the dialogue is Cassavetes’s dialogue), but does offer a loose real world explanation for the director’s trademark use of live film. As with much of his oeuvre, a big screen dominates proceedings, and what it displays is at least as important as watching the actors directly; the composition of the shots matters as much as the mise en scène.

Two particular shots dominate the first half. There’s an extreme close up of Smith’s Myrtle from a camera embedded in her dressing room mirror, that unsparingly rams home the fact she is indeed middle aged. And there’s one in the rafters that relays top down shots of the action that look perversely beautiful and unreal: dreamy, Pina Bausch-like fantasies, with some filter making the plain wooden floor look like flaking gold. The whole production feels suspended between brutal reality and waking dream.

Smith is wonderful: her fading starlet isn’t a hysterical diva but a clever woman facing a legitimate existential crisis. Myrtle is an ageing actress, and the script – by Nicola Hughes’s icy but frustrated playwright Sarah – offers nothing to her character beyond ‘ageing actress’. But Myrtle doesn’t get mad. The cool, amused intelligence in Smith’s eyes is glorious as Myrtle elects to totally subvert a scene in which manipulative director Manny (Hadley Frazer) demands she take a slap from her ex-lover Maurice (Benjamin Walker). Smith has famously had her own struggles in recent years, and her performance is heartfelt but also surprisingly wry and mischievous. 

In the second half, things get wilder, as Myrtle is haunted by visions of Nancy (Shira Haas), a troubled fan who was run over outside the theatre. It’s here that Wainwright’s score really comes into its own. Earlier on the songs – for the most part a deft marriage of baroque folk and retro show tunes – are just a pleasing adornment. But as Myrtle becomes ever more detached from reality, it’s reflected in the increasingly unnaturalistic use of song. Pulsing beats and screeching guitars enter the fray, and matters become ever trippier: in one scene it’s made clear that Myrtle is now ‘really’ singing, something that totally freaks everyone around her out.

I liked ‘Opening Night’. It’s not a traditional musical. I think perhaps it’s not really a musical at all, but rather a play that uses songs to specific effect. It’s a weird, wry, very human vehicle for a superb group of actors to tell a story that looks like it’s going to be an archetypal fable about a doomed star, but thrillingly pulls away from that, as Myrtle literally changes the script of her life and ‘Opening Night’ drifts into a euphoric final fantasia. 

Although it bears a superficial resemblance to Jamie Lloyd’s recent ‘Sunset Boulevard’ revival, to me it felt more like a negative of Van Hove’s other musical, the Bowie collaboration ‘Lazarus’. Both centre on individuals that have dangerously lost touch with reality, but where Thomas Newton – the hero of the icy, inscrutable ‘Lazarus’ – has to die, Myrtle gets a chance to change everything.

There are no dance numbers, power ballads, lavish sets, or cute romantic storylines. By entering the West End, ‘Opening Night’ is almost inevitably inviting an audience that will be confused by it. And yet: there’s a palpable warmth to it. Maybe it’s a musical, maybe it isn’t, but under all the avant-garde bells and whistles, it unquestionably has a heart – a buoyancy and belief in humanity that’s lacking in the original film.

Andrzej Lukowski
Written by
Andrzej Lukowski


Gielgud Theatre
Shaftesbury Avenue
Rail/Tube: Charing Cross; Tube: Piccadilly Circus
£50-£175. Runs 2hr 30min

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