'Opening Night' review – Sheridan Smith gives a raw, courageous performance

Read our review of musical Opening Night, starring Sheridan Smith and directed by Ivo van Hove, now in performances at the Gielgud Theatre to 27 July.

Marianka Swain
Marianka Swain

Sheridan Smith is back in her first West End musical since 2019’s Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat – and she’s made a fascinating selection. She stars in Ivo van Hove’s new stage adaptation (featuring music by Rufus Wainwright) of John Cassavetes’s 1977 backstage film Opening Night, which is about an alcoholic actress who has a nervous breakdown while building up to that titular opening night of a Broadway play.

Smith’s fans may be startled by her taking on such a tale. After all, she suffered mental health struggles herself during her run of Funny Girl in 2016 and missed a series of performances. But, as Smith has explained in interviews, Opening Night is a deliberate choice to confront those demons: tackling life via theatre.

The intertwining of art and reality is very much a prevailing theme of this psychological drama. Smith plays actress Myrtle Gordon, the revered but neurotic star of a new play, The Second Woman. One night, outside the theatre, Myrtle signs an autograph for an obsessive fan, who is then killed in a shocking traffic accident.

Myrtle continues to be haunted by the incident, with the girl, Nancy, seeping into her troubled psyche as she tries to make sense of the play. Her character Virginia is obsessed with ageing, just as the youthful-yet-sexualised Nancy reminds Myrtle of her own carefree teenage self. Myrtle also clashes with the egotistical director, Manny, the confrontational playwright, Sarah, and her ex-husband, now bitter co-star, Maurice.

It’s a lot to get to grips with, and I confess I sometimes lost track of the plot – particularly what was real, what was part of the play within the show, and what was imagined. That haziness might be deliberate; there is a funny moment when Myrtle bursts into song once again and suddenly the company can hear her – and are baffled. But the show’s musings come across as pretentious when detached from the sketchily drawn characters.

Van Hove also adds a framing device: a documentary crew. That means the action swirls between stage and screen, further adding to Myrtle’s hypnotic unravelling (again it’s not quite clear what the crew actually captures and what’s imagined). Sometimes Smith gazes unflinchingly at her reflection, which is projected onto a big screen, or an overhead camera gives us an eerie bird’s-eye view as she twirls manically. Strobe lights propel a hallucinatory horror sequence.

The one thing that’s absolutely clear is Smith’s total commitment. She really gives something of herself in an emotionally raw turn, and, using that gorgeous powerhouse voice, lends some welcome dramatic heft to Wainwright’s meandering songs, which would be better suited as atmospheric underscoring. She plays particularly well off the excellent Nicola Hughes, and Hadley Fraser is a compellingly brash antagonist.

However, audiences may well find they have Jamie Lloyd’s Sunset Boulevard in mind, since the two shows cover similar terrain and with overlapping techniques. I felt Sunset handled these themes with greater nuance; here, the commentary on women losing all relevance as they get older is dated and misogynistic. It’s also troubling to see the company’s blithe disregard for their lead’s wellbeing, to the point where she’s lying catatonic on the floor.

I hope that’s one area where life doesn’t imitate art, and that Smith has great support for this courageous – and personally cathartic – performance.

Opening Night is at the Gielgud Theatre through 27 July. Book Opening Night tickets on London Theatre.

Book Tickets CTA - LT/NYTG

Photo credit: Opening Night (Photo by Jan Versweyveld)

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