Review - Opening Night - Gielgud Theatre, London


Opening Night - Gielgud Theatre, London

Adapted from the 1977 John Cassavettes film, Opening Night tells the story of Myrtle Gordon, a well known Broadway actress who is preparing for the opening night of a new play; ‘The Second Woman.’ We, the audience, are observers during rehearsals, and then as the production heads into previews. During all this, the cast and crew are being filmed by a documentary team who are capturing the on and offstage preparations, so much of the action is duplicated onto the large screen above the set, which all adds to the tension.

To complicate matters further, Myrtle is struggling with her own demons of alcoholism, and brokenness, whilst having to play opposite her ex husband Maurice on stage. Immediately, we sense the friction between them which doesn’t take long to work out that the collapse of their relationship is far from being dealt with.

During the rehearsals, an obsessed young fan of Myrtles is tragically killed outside the theatre and Myrtle then starts to see her ghost in the theatre, which adds to her complexities and fragility. All this tension, and drama on and off stage leave the audience wondering if the production will ever make it to the opening night!

At first I have to admit that the plot seemed tangled, convoluted and messy, making it hard to understand what was actually happening at times. However, as the show progressed, strong themes began to emerge as the play within the play and all the on and off stage activity began to unravel itself, bringing with it some sense of clarity and enlightenment!

Myrtle struggles to connect with the play and her character Virginia, who she feels is defined by her age. Her anxiety about being typecast in similarly one dimensional middle aged female roles in the future is understandable, especially as she herself is not yet there, and still wants to embrace all the liberties she enjoyed in her youth.

For me, the main theme I came away with was the ongoing struggle that woman have to engage in as they confront the aging process. When it hits at a certain stage in life and how to deal with that without losing one’s identity and personality. The ongoing battle against stereotypical perceptions from others not in that particular bracket and so on.

Myrtle is not wanting to be put in a type of box from where there is probably no coming back from. She is still feeling young and yet at the same time knows that change is starting to happen to her. Being asked to play this role, in her mind, would contribute towards society’s restrictive ideas about aging women. The tension between her and the slightly older playwright – Sarah, all added up to where both women were coming from and the emotions that that produced in each of them.

Stand out star of the piece is Sheridan Smith as Myrtle who plays a wide range of emotions as she takes a tumultuous journey throughout and lets you see into her characters very soul. This raises the bar to such a high standard and her fellow cast members, all of whom have an impressive set of bios and experience between them, respond to Sheridan’s excellence as they explore their own complex characters and rise with her.

This production is definitely a bit out there and not your gentle watch of a musical, but it is innovative and pushes the boundaries. To have part of the show played live in the street outside the theatre which is beamed back to us the audience in the theatre via the big screen is certainly edgy! As Myrtle stumbles and collapses in the street and real life passers by stop and engage with what’s happening, it’s certainly not going to be prescriptive!

Perhaps the writing could be looked at to make it flow a little easier, and the music I didn’t feel had any standout songs, but the band did a great job with what there was. A few odd moments which in my opinion could have been tweaked or shortened considerably. The scene where the 17-year-old ghost having a full-on wrestle with Myrtle complete with strobe lighting was adding to the chaos. Add that to her belting out a song via a karaoke mic moment made it all rather odd, but that’s my personal opinion and others may disagree.

I almost wonder given its complex layers, whether different people will come away with different feelings and messages after watching this, and perhaps that’s a good thing as a lot of the plot is left to the individual to unravel.

One thing is certain though, in all its wildness and the feeling of being on a bit of trip, this production will stay with me, as will Sheridan Smith’s raw, vulnerable and broad characterisation and excellent performance, which underline her giftedness and is worth the ticket price alone.

This show was reviewed on the 23rd March 2024 at the Gielgud Theatre, London where it runs until the 27th July 2024.  Tickets available here: Opening Night at Gielgud Theatre (delfontmackintosh.co.uk)

*** 1/2 stars

Mandy Watsham-Dunstall

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Photo credit: Jan Versweyveld