wed 22/05/2024

Opening Night, Gielgud Theatre review - brave, yes, but also misguided and bizarre | reviews, news & interviews

Opening Night, Gielgud Theatre review - brave, yes, but also misguided and bizarre

Opening Night, Gielgud Theatre review - brave, yes, but also misguided and bizarre

Sheridan Smith gives it her all against near-impossible odds

Broadway blues: Sheridan Smith (centre) in 'Opening Night'Jan Versweyveld

Is there a more purely likeable actress than Sheridan Smith, the performer who was still a teenager when she stole the show at the Donmar in Into the Woods and who managed, as Elle Woods in the West End premiere of Legally Blonde, to bring tears both to her eyes and ours?

If so in the London theatre at the moment, I have yet to come across her, and the first thing to be said about the new Rufus Wainwright-Ivo Van Hove musical Opening Night is that it is jolly lucky to have Smith centre-stage. So engaging is this performer, so tirelessly focused and true even when the show she is fronting is spinning furiously off course, that Smith insists attention must be paid, even if less charitable audience members may be equally insistent to vote with their feet. (The show even speaks, Willy Loman-like, of "the kind of talent that demands attention.")Nicola Hughes (right) as the playwright in 'Opening Night'It's easier of course to do revivals, and Smith has built a formidable stage career to date taking occupancy of one stage role or another that has come with mighty forbears. Chief amongst them was her appropriation of Barbra Streisand's career-defining assignment as Fanny Brice in the very same musical, Funny Girl, whose run was marked by misfortune, and worse, for Smith, who has since jumped back with style and flair.

Her bravery is on full view at the Gielgud Theatre, even if the unvarnished truth about Opening Night, itself adapted from a little-known indie American film from 1977, is that it demands all the good will it can get.

Nothing about Van Hove's drearily camera-heavy staging, or a first-ever musical theatre score from the protean Rufus Wainwright that seems ill-suited to the task at hand, makes a case for elaborating upon material that overlaps thematically with All About Eve, Van Hove's previous screen-to-stage transfer about theatrical travails. The result is that you end up watching Smith singing more often than not through tears whilst inhabiting an actress called Myrtle Gordon (great name!) in throes to a breakdown as the Broadway play in which she is starring crawls towards opening night. Release, one senses, awaits both on the character's behalf – and our own. 

The musical theatre loves no topic more than theatre itself, so it may seem churlish to note the advanced navel-gazing on display. The fact of the matter is that nothing about the play-within-the-play, aka The Second Woman, makes at all clear why Myrtle has leant her talent to a work for which she early on professes her dislike, nor why a documentary crew would be allowed to film this car crash in slow motion, a description that after a while could characterise Opening Night itself – such is the metaverse on display throughout. 

We're quickly introduced to the relevant personnel seen struggling with the decisively-quoted dictum at the end of the first act that "this is only a play". The playwright (Nicola Hughes, above right) makes precisely the pleas for authorial integrity that you might expect, leaving her producer (John Marquez), director (Hadley Fraser), and leading man (Benjamin Walker) – himself an ex of Myrtle's – to inhabit varying positions on a spectrum from the supportive to the insufferable. Small wonder we find Myrtle at one point in the second act cast out on to the actual street, scrabbling for survival.

Haunted by the presence of an eager young fan, Nancy (the strong-voiced Shira Haas), who has paid for her worshipfulness with her life, Myrtle clings ever more tenuously to sanity as talk of a "broken" world builds toward a feeling of apocalypse. Or maybe not, given a company number at the curtain call that all but undoes what has come before and makes one wonder briefly if the entire, wearyingly self-serious venture wasn't just an overextended jape. 

Benjamin Walker (left) plays Sheridan Smith's ex in 'Opening Night'There's much that fascinates, to be fair, not least the commitment of a name-heavy cast that includes Broadway performer Walker (pictured right) in his West End debut: trivia buffs will note that he was Broadway's most recent Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, whilst Gena Rowlands's colleagues in the original John Cassavetes film included the first-ever Brick, Ben Gazzara. Amy Lennox, Jessie Buckley's immediate replacement in Cabaret, shows up strumming a guitar plaintively from the sidelines. Myrtle, in turn, agonises about ageing and art and having "killed a girl who didn't exist", even as Wainwright's score imposes lyrics on a melodic line that for the most part can't sustain them.

I'm all for scores forsaking the ready commercial option – Adam Guettel's work most recently on Days of Wine and Roses comes to mind – but what's on offer here couples choice ensemble writing (the quartets land well) with a lot of self-pitying in song that gets accompanied by random classical references to Trojan Women and the like, presumably to lend added ballast. Pretension is punctured now and again by the odd nod towards something more conventionally Broadway (Myrtle's opening "Magic" is the apparent takeaway), but Wainwright's heart feels insufficiently committed on either aesthetic front. At which point cue the general bewilderment felt at the show's close. 

That said, the show has too many smart people on board not to anticipate many of these objections. "Half the audience loved it, half the audience hated it," the producer is heard to report of The Second Woman much as one can imagine those in attendance at the Gielgud responding in kind. (So potent is that narrative, by the way, that Ruth Wilson chose it for her 24-hour stage marathon last May.) Myrtle elsewhere announces through tears, "I don't care what the critics say", to which one can only respond with regard to so woeful a character that the inestimable actress playing her will absolutely see this show out on her way to another happier theatrical day. 

 

Comments

We saw Opening Night yesterday and felt desperately sorry for the amazing Sheridan Smith and highly talented cast members as it was the most dreadful play we have ever seen. We also considered leaving during the interval as it was so awful. We somehow forced ourselves to stay, with the hope that things may improve in the second half (sadly it didn't). The cast are not to blame as unfortunately, you can't polish a turd. On a positive note, the Gielgud Theatre itself and staff are wonderful.

 

 

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