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Review: Opening Night (Gielgud Theatre)

Review by Daz Gale

 

⭐️

 

We are living in a great time for new musicals in the West End with 2024 already wowing us with recent and upcoming transfers of shows that have slowly built up audiences through regional, fringe, and off-West End runs. One that took many of us by surprise when it was announced last year was the world premiere of Opening Night – not one that had been on many people’s radar, the talent involved in both cast and creative ensured this one piqued many people’s interest, but would that be enough to ensure Opening Night was a hit?

 

Based on John Cassavetes's movie from 1977, Opening Night is a play-within-a-play (well, musical) as lead actress Myrtle Gordon prepares to open a new play The Second Woman on Broadway. Haunted by the end of her marriage and further haunted by a tragic accident that occurs in a preview performance, Myrtle attempts to find a way to connect to the material and give the performance of her lifetime, but as she attempts to battle her demons and keep everything together, there is the ever-present risk this is one show that won’t make it to opening night.



By now you would have clocked the star rating at the top of the review. It is a fact of theatre that you are not going to like everything but as with all my reviews, I will always find a way to be as constructive as possible and focus on as many positives as possible. Sadly though, for this production, they are incredibly few and far between.

 

Opening Night is a perplexing beast of a show. It confuses and seems to show a severe lack of understanding of the art of theatre, seemingly unbothered with the necessity to connect to its audience. It is a show where all of its production elements clash, never blending and suggesting multiple creative visions couldn’t reach an agreement, resulting in some ungodly mess.

 



There are two huge problems with Opening Night and they fall on the same person – the writing and the direction, both by Ivo Van Hove. While Ivo's style can divide people, he has proven himself time and time again, including last year's sensational A Little Life. Something has really misfired here though - perhaps due to the fact he had spread himself too thinly or not given the show enough time to be nurtured to become its best self. The writing on offer here tends to be nonsensical, convoluted, structurally strange, poorly paced and fails to do anything with the source material. With writing that is often clumsy and clunky, the lines become blurred between the bad writing of the fictional play and that of this musical – perhaps that was the intention and this is all a piece of art, but it comes across as pretentious and misfires in the biggest way.

 

Van Hove’s direction similarly perplexes throughout with some increasingly peculiar choices, none of which make any sense for this show or, to be blunt, any show that is on a stage. Again, there seems to be a real lack of understanding of how to connect the story with the audience, with the cast wandering around aimlessly, randomly followed by cameras. You never know whether something is meant to be funny or painfully dark with the only emotion you are left feeling throughout one of coldness and indifference. Usually shows that fail as drastically as this one has is down to the disparity of ideas between their writer and director- the fact they are the same here destroys that theory – though maybe van Hove would have benefited by getting someone else to work with him on this?



Though it feels like I am putting all of the failure of Opening Night on van Hove, the show misses on pretty much all fronts. Having Rufus Wainwright involved in the music was one of the more exciting aspects of this production, as the man is a proven talent. However, his abilities aren't fully utilised in this musical, leading to forgettable and bland songs that add nothing to the story and create a huge disconnect. There are one or two moments of potential in the show, with the early number ‘Magic’ giving Sheridan Smith something to get her teeth into, though the rest of the numbers pale to this token acceptable one. Act one closer ‘Life Is Thin’ performed by Nicola Hughes as Sarah should have been a showstopper but suffers through no fault of her own, due to a song that is structurally all over the place and never quite lifts when it should.

 

There has been too much of a focus on the live filming aspect of Opening Night, Usually, I am a sucker for this with Dorian Gray, The Human Body, and Sunset Boulevard all blowing me away with their inspired approach to live filming over the past six months. However, the live filming in Opening Night adds absolutely nothing to the story whatsoever. Inexplicable close-ups for no real reason, incredibly shaky filming which looks far too amateurish for a West End stage, and pre-recorded sequences that failed to sync properly, and just underwhelmed throughout were some of the problems. While Ivo Van Hove has used live filming before, the comparisons and similarities to Sunset Boulevard are too obvious to ignore, including one familiar sequence where a camera follows Hadley Fraser outside of the theatre. The problem is - everything Sunset Boulevard got right, Opening Night gets wrong in a show that is, quite simply, not good enough.



A baffling sequence where the audience is filmed entering the theatre each performance may well be the tackiest thing I have ever seen in the theatre and did nothing apart from ensure a large amount of talking and laughing from the audience… when we should be watching the action on stage, again demonstrating a severe lack of understanding for theatre and its connectivity in general.

 

I did wonder if all of this was deliberate as I couldn’t think of any reason why someone as proven as Ivo van Hove would make a show that very obviously misses its mark every time. Perhaps a double bluff,  I pondered if the idea of the bad show that was being made in the story was extended to them deliberately making a bad show in Opening Night, perhaps as an experiment or to send a message – whatever that may be? I’d like to think that wasn’t the case as it would be a waste of resources, a waste of the talents of the cast, and a waste of the space that could go to so many shows fighting for a West End home at the moment, I can’t think of any other reason why a show like this was made though? One thing about theatre is it will always keep you on your toes and surprise you, which is one thing that can be said for Opening Night at least.

 


I always said one-star reviews should be reserved for irredeemable shows and even if a show had a fantastic cast, that was enough to earn it its second star. However, what I didn’t factor into that conclusion was what if you have a cast at the top of their game and don’t make the most out of their talents? With that in mind though, let’s talk about the one good thing Opening Night has in its armour and that is its cast.

 

The cast of Opening Night is sensational in its own right. Sheridan Smith is a phenomenal talent, who reminded everyone what a tour-de-force performance she can give on stage with her acclaimed turn in Shirley Valentine last year. The prospect of seeing Sheridan back in a musical for the first time in five years was enough to ensure my excitement for this project. Though she does the best she can, showcasing her sensational voice and connectivity with any role she performs, she is limited by the material itself which never lives up to her talents. Sheridan has spoken about how she connected to the role and relates to it through her own experience which is evident in the performance she gives, demonstrating her phenomenal talents and ability to emote. The performance she gives is worthy of a show that has been put together far better than this one has.



The same can be said about the whole cast – any show would kill for a cast of this standard with so many proven talents here. All of whom have their talents squandered on what may be the worst material to have graced a West End stage in many a year. Hadley Fraser, Amy Lennox, Benjamin Walker, John Marquez, and Nicole Hughes all suffer at the hands of underwritten and underdeveloped characters, often visible in the background for no discernible reason and never given the opportunities to shine. When you think that that impressive list includes a recent Sally Bowles in Lennox, Hughes who recently demonstrated her formidable talents in Into The Woods and Fraser who is surely one of the greatest talents in the West End, to not use them to the best of their abilities or even remotely near the minimum these incredible performers can do is, quite frankly, insulting, While Shira Haas has an interesting character in herself and makes the most of it, she suffers at the hands of ridiculous direction that diminishes her scenes and movement. While this cast in itself should be enough to warrant a second star in this review, the fact they are not being used to their best abilities prevents me from doing that.

 

I kept thinking there was a lack of understanding in general with a real disconnect or perhaps even a disregard to audience response – this can be seen from every aspect, being as pedantic as using a blonde Sheridan Smith in the artwork only to have her dye her hair brown for the role. That might seem pernickety and pulling at strings but it is an example of why this has failed so spectacularly. The absolutely strange finale is another example of this, where the show suddenly ends in an unsatisfactory way to find the cast beaming away for an upbeat number that feels like it was taken from another show altogether. If your first words when a show ends are “What the was that?”, you’ve probably done something wrong.



As always, it is worth pointing out this is just one person’s opinion and theatre is subjective. While this show regrettably fell completely flat for me, you may disagree and that is the beauty of theatre. All I can do is convey my thoughts and feelings on the show, as disappointingly negative as they may be for this one.

 

I struggle to find the positives when it comes to Opening Night. One of the most ill-advised productions, everything about it fails. Feeling rushed and under-developed, it tries to do too much and misses at every opportunity. It could have done well to get more people involved in the creative process and perhaps tried it out like so many other new musicals do before launching in the West End. Because that hasn’t happened, the result is the single worst show to have graced a West End stage in years. You get the sense they strayed too close to the source material and ended up making a bad show in themselves, but the fact remains -  the cast deserves so much better than this, paying audiences deserve so much better than this, and theatre, in general, deserves better. To end on a positive note - if their goal was to mirror the bad show in the story, consider this a job well done.


Opening Night plays at the Gielgud Theatre until 27th July. Tickets from https://www.delfontmackintosh.co.uk/

 

Photos by Jan Versweyveld

 

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