Opening Night review – Gielgud Theatre, London ★★★☆☆

Photo: Jan Versweyveld

Ivo van Hove returns to the West End with the new musical Opening Night, an adaptation of John Cassavetes’ 1977 film of the same name. It features music and lyrics by Rufus Wainwright and book and direction by van Hove, with his long-term partner Jan Versweyveld providing set, lighting and video design. For many though, the draw for many will undoubtedly be the casting of Sheridan Smith in the lead role.

The premise is simple, despite the apparent online confusion amongst some theatregoers ahead of its own opening night. Star actress Myrtle (Sheridan Smith) is due to perform in a new play The Second Woman by Sarah (Nicola Hughes) on Broadway under the direction of Manny (Hadley Fraser). With just a handful of previews left until the official opening night, things are not going well as Myrtle struggles to connect with her character and the theme of aging, despite no longer being in her youth.

Her problems are compounded by her poor relationship with her co-star, and ex-husband, Maurice (Benjamin Walker). An accident involving a young fan, Nancy (Shira Haas), threatens to push Myrtle over the edge as opening night looms closer and closer. All of which is good news for the film crew creating a documentary about the production – a plot point seemingly only exists to allow van Hove an excuse for the presence of the cameras on stage as he, once again, combines live performance with film projection.

Photo: Jan Versweyveld

There are some wonderful performances amongst the cast, and the significant number of people who will see the show just for a glimpse of its lead will be rewarded for their presence with a star-turn by Smith. There are parallels between Myrtle’s experiences and Smith’s own experiences in Funny Girl when she experienced a ‘meltdown’ in the public eye. Smith mines the depths of herself and comes up with gold.

In the supporting cast, John Marquez is excellent as David, a producer with one eye on a successful production and another on its star. Fraser provides a great vocal performance but struggles to find a third dimension to the two-dimensional sketch of the director and Amy Lennox is criminally underused as his equally underwritten wife. Nicola Hughes’s vocal performance is sensational, but again she is working with a character that is hardly a sketch.

Wainwright’s songs, traditional musical theatre-style in the first half before disintegrating into more experimentalist arrangements in the second half, often fail to add to the emotional depth of the characters, largely in part due to some odd lyrical choices and turns of phrase. They’re hampered too by the the fact they sit alongside the action – with the show being more like a play with songs than a musical. Yes, that old dilemma again.

Photo: Jan Versweyveld

There’s no question about van Hove’s technical prowess, as with previous productions like 2019’s Gillian Anderson and Lily James fronted All About Eve in the West End and 2017’s Network starring Bryan Cranston which played at the National Theatre and on Broadway but with each film adaptation, van Hove seems to be realising diminishing returns. Where Network soared, All About Eve stumbled and Opening Night trips itself up with its need to stay true to van Hove’s directorial principles.

The schtick, while wonderfully attractive and impressive, is looking increasingly obvious, its purpose is becoming obscure and the large screen at the centre of the stage is more of a distraction than anything else. What is the cinematic aspect really adding to the show? I couldn’t find much of an answer – which is the answer in itself. Outside the West End, Rachel O’Riordan directs a production of Brian Friel’s Faith Healer where three characters stand on stage and tell their story in turn, and it’s fantastic. There’s something to note in that.

Opening Night is at the Gielgud Theatre until 27 July 2024