“Opening Night” at Gielgud Theatre

Mark Shenton in the West End
27 March 2024

“You gotta make magic out of tragic,” we are repeatedly told in Opening Night, director Ivo van Hove and composer Rufus Wainwright’s new musical version of John Cassavetes’s 1977 film about the backstage process of a play being prepared for its Broadway premiere. I’m not sure that this show achieves that aim, though there are some compensations along the way, but also a lot of muddle.


Benjamin Walker and Sheridan Smith.
Photo credit:  Jan Versweyveld.


All of which is a crying shame, literally so in the case of star Sheridan Smith, boldly and bravely channelling her own well-documented breakdown during the run of Funny Girl in the West End in 2016, to play another stage musical actor undergoing her own shattering breakdown of confidence as opening night looms; the tears that pour from her distressed face are magnified on a large screen that dominates the centre of the stage, filmed live by a pair of onstage operators, are very real. (This show could be re-titled “Unfunny Girl”.) She is completely invested in playing Myrtle, and we in her as she does so, as her vulnerability and need are so intensely palpable

That blurring of actor and character is also, of course, what makes Smith such a huge attraction; she is surely one of the most beloved of current West End stars, selling every single ticket for the entire run of her last solo effort there in a revival of Willy Russell’s Shirley Valentine at the Duke of York’s last year. So she’s really putting herself on the line here, exposing her heart and her art for all to see; it was a coup to cast her, and she is the best reason to see it.

She’s not quite the only reason to see it, but it’s a close-run thing: even though surrounded by a luxury supporting cast that includes Hadley Fraser, Nicola Hughes, John Marquez, and Broadway’s charismatic Benjamin Walker as respectively the show’s director, writer, producer and Smith’s onstage co-star, none of them have much to do. Even more egregiously neglected are Amy Lennox as the producer’s wife, and the usually stunning Rebecca Thornhill, who barely registers as Smith’s dresser assistant.


The ensemble.
Photo credit:  Jan Versweyveld.


They are mostly reduced to puppets, floating around and absorbing the all-consuming needs of propping up Myrtle, on whom the entire drama is pivoted. As a study of narcissistic need and insecurity in the theatre, it doesn’t exactly show us anything new or revelatory. There’s a more intriguing drama playing at the edges of it all, as Myrtle is haunted by the figure of a young fan (played by Shira Haas) who meets a sudden death at the start of the show (so it is not really a spoiler to reveal it), and provokes her breakdown.

But this being a musical, there is the opportunity at least to expand the language and storytelling through song, to insinuate some emotion into the numbingly bleak proceedings; however, Wainwright’s songs rarely rise to the occasion. There’s a lot of what sounds like Kander and Ebb pastiche, but not enough blistering originality. This is a surprise, from one of pop music’s most iconoclastic talents. Though he has previously written operas (including Prima Donna which was premiered at the second Manchester International Festival in 2009), musical theatre is a more populist form, and requires more accessible tunefulness.

At least van Hove provides visual interest throughout, bringing the aesthetics of tricksy art-house theatre to it. Van Hove, of course, has pioneered a theatrical appropriation of cinematic techniques in his storytelling armoury, and has been much copied, most recently and successfully by Jamie Lloyd’s now Broadway-bound revival of Sunset Boulevard. (Some contributors to social media bulletin boards, not knowing of this past track record, have thought that it is van Hove who is copying Lloyd.) However, it is not always clear where we are in time, place, or location in this case; the commentary from the screen is not always harnessed to the live action we see, exposing some of the limits of this way of working. (The set, lighting, and video design, more functional than visually alluring, are by Jan Versweyveld, van Hove’s long-time principal collaborator and partner.)

An onstage band – situated top-stage right – is led by Nigel Lilley, giving the music integrity if not memorability. But despite the laudable efforts of a strong creative team, this experimental musical is unlikely to be a popular hit.