Wednesday 27 March 2024

Opening Night - Review

Gielgud Theatre, London


Music, lyrics & orchestrations by Rufus Wainwright
Original film by John Cassavetes
Directed by & book written by Ivo Van Hove

Sheridan Smith

Every show has an opening night. In Mel Brooks’ musical The Producers he even included a song entitled Opening Night, so it was surely only a matter of time until a creative (step forward Ivo Van Hove) grabbed hold of John Cassavetes’ 1977 movie to fashion a two-act show around one of theatre’s most consistently nerve-wracking challenges.

In one of the boldest upendings of the genre, Van Hove’s multimedia, mind-meddling, meta-musical presents us with the decline of the fragile Myrtle (Sheridan Smith). A leading lady in The Second Woman, a Broadway play that’s four days from opening, Myrtle is already battling profound insecurities about her age and career. Early on in the narrative she witnesses the brutal death of Nancy, a fan killed in a road traffic accident immediately after having very nervously obtained the actress’s autograph. Following Nancy's death, the musical then tracks the ticking time-bomb of the impact of that trauma upon Myrtle’s mental well-being.

Smith is outstanding in a performance that mixes gravitas with fragility. The linchpin of both The Second Woman and Van Hove’s musical, it is her energy that drives the show. There are fine supporting performances too. Hadley Fraser is Manny, the demanding Broadway director who is all too happy to blur professional boundaries if it will reassure his leading lady. Nicola Hughes has the complex role of NY playwright Sarah, who is required to handle Myrtle’s mangling of her script as the actress’s mind unravels. The duet between Myrtle and Sarah, Makes One Wonder, is spine-tingling in its exploration of the pair’s respective vulnerabilities. Amy Lennox as Manny’s wife Dorothee has a modest but useful role in the narrative, providing a robust and challenging foil to her husband’s inappropriate conduct. 

The most impressive work amongst the supporting roles comes from West End debutante Shira Haas as Nancy. Haas takes this unfortunate young woman, transitioning her from a star-struck fan with issues to a ghost-like apparition that plagues Myrtle’s troubled mind. This is a bold conceit addressed brilliantly by Van Hove and lending an almost horrific edge to the second act. 

The use of video and live-action multi-camera projections (designed by Jan Versweyveld) deploys a massive upstage screen that not only plays around with cleverly storyboarded close-ups, but goes further with the merging of camera shots. In a remarkable coup-de-theatre, as Myrtle reaches her mental nadir, Versweyveld and Van Hove use time-lapse to add another visible dimension to the actress’s distress.

Rufus Wainwright’s music is, for the most part, a joy to experience taking in a range of American styles. Nigel Lilley’s 9-piece onstage band are terrific with standout work from Huw Davies on guitar. Wainwright’s lyrics occasionally drift into repetitive triteness, a feature perhaps of his rock and pop background rather than the more rigid disciplines of musical theatre.

Opening Night makes for a challenging night of unconventional theatre that is at times deeply upsetting. Sheridan Smith’s performance is one of the finest to be found on a London stage.

Booking until 27th July
Photo credit: Jan Versweyveld

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