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Opening Night - Gielgud Theatre

It is true that not everybody that was seated in the Gielgud Theatre just before 7:30pm was still there just before 10:00pm, although everyone in my own row came back before the end of the interval (some, it appears, didn’t leave at all). As it has been reported that even the plot of Opening Night: A New Musical is indecipherable, I took it upon myself to watch the 1977 John Cassavettes’ film on which it is (presumably) based before heading to the theatre. In the movie, the storyline works because it’s of its time. When actress Myrtle Gordon (in the movie, Gena Rowlands) pushes back against another actor in a Broadway play slapping her in the face, she is told by the play’s director, Manny Victor (Ben Gazzara): “Actresses get slapped. It’s a tradition.” He adds: “It’s mandatory you get hit. That’s right.”


Indeed, it was the case at the time. It’s not entirely clear exactly when the musical is set, although a mobile phone gets passed around and the sheer number of scenes being filmed and projected onto a large screen suggests there are regular social media updates of some kind to some platform or other. So it’s reasonable, at least in my humble opinion for what it’s worth, to assume the musical is meant to be in the present day. Except the plot hasn’t been updated sufficiently to take into account how the world has changed. Nobody needs to slap anybody, traditional or not. To take a much milder example, when Myrtle (in the musical, Sheridan Smith) rings the theatre, the phone is passed to Manny (Hadley Fraser), but the call is disconnected. Could he not have rung the number back instead of letting loose an expletive?


“Why is she singing?” the play within the musical’s playwright, Sarah (Nicola Hughes) wants to know. ‘She’ being Myrtle, who apparently goes off-script and sings. In a musical. This sort of bullshit is probably why some people find the show baffling, despite the inclusion of a synopsis in the show’s programme. “I love you,” various men – always men – involved with the production tell Myrtle, who is unattached. But the men ARE attached, and their conduct and behaviour is therefore worse than anything Myrtle gets up to, but of course, in this highly misogynistic world, practically everything is her fault.


Composer and lyricist Rufus Wainwright has put together a set of bland musical numbers. I might have appreciated some of them if the sound design (Tom Gibbons and Alex Twiselton) wasn’t so diabolical, to the point that the lyrics were often indistinct. It’s unacceptable in a piddly pub theatre, never mind a Shaftesbury Avenue playhouse. Nancy (Shira Haas) cannot sing, which I only discovered thanks to her being allocated a solo number in the first half, and two more in the second. Myrtle, in a late scene, sings something about being ‘ready for battle’, but does so in such a lackadaisical fashion that she wouldn’t last five minutes unless she was going to battle against one of those hard to open tubs of washing machine capsules.


There’s also something more than a bit mean, given Sheridan Smith’s previous personal struggles, in casting her as an actress prone to drinking to excess who acts strangely during the preview period of a play, and even on opening night itself (hence the show’s title). A distancing effect, not that the show needed one, happened periodically with a translucent curtain drawn across the stage, not allowing the audience to see proceedings clearly. (Not very) interestingly, Sarah’s play itself, The Second Woman, would never have received the backing of Broadway producers in reality.


Boring and repetitive, the challenge is to stay the course. One’s patience is not rewarded, and it is unclear what happens to Myrtle or anyone else in the end. She stumbles through ‘opening night’ but how successful does the play become? Then again, who gives a shit? The whole bunch of characters are thoroughly dislikeable and what could have been a one hour play is stretched out to a two-and-a-half hour musical. Manny is a terrible ‘director’ (inverted commas mine), doing little to properly rein in excessive behaviours in good time. A long period of flashing lights feature in one scene, which even the most ardent anti-trigger warning patrons might be inclined to admit should really be something publicised - preventable epileptic fits are, to put it mildly, not a good look. An utter waste of time, talent and effort, Opening Night is a dismal failure in every conceivable way.


Zero stars

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