Review: Opening Night, Gielgud Theatre

Ivo van Hove returns to the West End with Rufus Wainwright’s songs and Sheridan Smith’s acting in unconventional musical Opening Night at the Gielgud Theatre

“It feels like the end of the earth”

In a culture so thoroughly conditioned as to what a West End musical ‘should’ be, doing anything different is always a risk. Shifts are certainly starting to happen, if slowly. It seems the decades of Lloyd Webber-inspired hegemony are no longer guaranteed to continue as they have (the trad Aspects of Love closed early, Sunset Boulevard succeeded due to Jamie Lloyd’s creativity, though who knows about Starlight Express…) and the likes of SIX and Jamie have queered the form in their own way. Opening Night arrives at the Gielgud Theatre as substantially more of a big swing though and feels destined to be divisive.

There’s heavyweight names behind it – an Ivo van Hove adaptation of a John Cassavetes film with music and lyrics by Rufus Wainwright – but the work of none of these artists feels particularly conducive to your standard West End fare and so it proves with this new musical adaptation of the 1977 psychological drama. van Hove cleaves closely to the innate idiosyncracy of Cassavetes’ creative vision rather than seeking to refine it into something more, well, commercial. The result is a theatrical experience that relishes its avant garde nature and dares its audience to think a bit differently about musical theatre.

The show centres on a theatre company in preparation for opening a new play on Broadway. Leading lady Myrtle is battling the show’s writer about the focus on her character’s age but when an encounter with a fan outside the theatre turns tragic, the level of turmoil backstage skyrockets. Sheridan Smith plays Myrtle with a ferocious energy – a woman already teetering on the edge and pushed even further by her neuroses as she’s haunted by an apparition of the dead girl, her fear of the youth she has lost and her inability to truly connect with the men in her life, whether ex-husband and co-star, director or kindly producer.

Ivo van Hove and Jan Versweyveld bring their habitual stylistic techniques and if some of it does feel a little overfamiliar, other aspects prosper. An underdeveloped framing device of a TV documentary being made about the run up to opening night allows for the presence of much live camera-work (occasionally incongruously as in Myrtle’s apartment scene…). We also nip outside for a scene that sees her staggering into the theatre drunk, recorded footage of that performance’s audience also used in the backdrop. Cameras also sit behind mirrors to take us deep into Myrtle’s experience as her face is blown up on the big screen and as her psyche starts to fracture, what we see on that screen starts to diverge from what’s happening onstage, dreams versus truth, escapism versus reality.

Rufus Wainwright’s suite of songs operate almost less as a score than as a kaleidoscopic soundscape, wide-ranging tracks shuffling through the highly eclectic mood. Smith gets some soaring anthems, Nicola Hughes’ film writer Sarah gets a fantastically tumultuous Act 1 closer and there’s a gorgeous track split four ways that brings in Hadley Fraser’s punchy director and an underused Amy Lennox as his wife Dorothy. Diversions into strobing techno are unexpected but sit well with the production’s nature – you may not necessarily come out humming any of the tunes but endless repetitions of motifs is so far from what is trying to be essayed here

Would a female voice in the adaptation of the book have brought greater purchase to the narratives around older women in the creative industries? More than likely. Could Wainwright have introduced more lyrical depth? I’d have to listen to the show again but that thought did pop into my mind occasionally. Will it prove polarising? I don’t doubt it for a minute. But as we’re expected to get excited about shows like Sister Act and The Wizard of Oz returning time and time again to the West End, I’m grateful for something this unconventional getting to be this high profile. Go and make up your own mind.

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