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Opening Night

THE joy and the pain of writing about theatre is that, after a while, you realise you’ve seen almost everything theatre has to offer.

Please forgive any sense of over-indulgence, exaggeration or deja-vu that accompanies the following announcement, but I think I may just have watched the best worst musical of all time.

“I’ve been in the theatre all my life and I still don’t know anything about it,” cries one character. Well, quite.

After a few minutes of Opening Night, I began to get that depressed feeling, and, after a half hour, felt rather offended. 

In the West End, cynicism and pessimism are natural bedfellows. Do we really need another piece of musical theatre about sad actresses?

The show includes an immersive segment in which Sheridan Smith’s character, Myrtle, collapses in a drunken state outside the stage door with the scenes projected onto screens inside.

There’s so much going on – flashbacks and crosscutting – that you’re never allowed any peace. Why? To keep you from getting bored. It succeeds in that, but the effect is nerve jangling.

Something odd happened during Opening Night, which is based on the 1977 film of the same name, with music and lyrics by Rufus Wainwright, on Shaftesbury Avenue, London.

One minute the star Smith was quietly contemplating how to ‘make magic out of tragic’.

The next, a dubstep backing track had kicked in and Smith was murdering ghost girl Nancy (Shira Haas), – who doesn’t exist – with a lamp. 

At which point — and I make no apology for this reaction — I exploded, with laughter, not just because the scene itself was unintentionally very funny, but I’d also noticed the entire row in front of me had left during the interval. 

Admittedly, it could’ve been even more mortifying if Cameron Mackintosh had popped out from behind one of the doors and joined in on backing vocals.

You could also describe it as “so bad it’s good”, but that would underestimate the scale of this one massively. 

I hated act 1. I left the Theatre delirious. 

Van Hove sets up promising situations and then the pay offs are out of step. The show is full of bits of dialogue that have lost what they connected with, character relations that have become disjointed, scenes that dribble off, so after the first 30 minutes or so the production loses momentum.

In the story, Myrtle, played by Smith, is having a nervous breakdown after the death of one of her fans, the very image of her younger self.

Various men letch over her. And so, it continues. A visual atrocity with an unnerving use of creepy physical intimacy, and a tired use of video footage. 

And, no, technically it’s not actually a musical, it’s a very po-faced play with jazzy music. Smith’s work doesn’t hold together here, but how could it? 

Opening Night is so epically, wonderfully, bloody awful it’s occasionally brilliant. 

Still, the cast are seriously talented, and they saw it right through to the bitter end and then, like trained psychopaths, carried on the curtain call as if nothing untoward had happened, cheerfully clapping along with no coordination and telling us: “You gotta make magic out of tragic.” 

This is clearly not just my opinion. Because I want to make it clear I am laughing at this show, not with it. One can have a fairly good time laughing at Act 2, but it doesn’t sit too well as a joke because the people on stage are being humiliated and underused. (I didn’t really enjoy seeing Sheridan Smith making a fool of herself)

The 16 credited producers clearly haven’t noticed what they’re doing, though, as they’ve spent the preview period chopping and changing this from an incoherent shambles into a dystopian Funny Girl

Without Smith the piece is extinct.

Someone really should’ve had a word here and said: “Ivo, darling, loved your A Little Life, but Sunset Boulevard did all this with more style.” But they didn’t.

This is not to deny that the actors do a good job. I thought Hadley Fraser tried his best. 

Yet, for all its skill, I found myself admiring Jan Versweyveld’s lighting more than relishing drama.

But look, when Van Hove goes wrong, he goes laboriously, painfully wrong.

Anyway, Opening Night is, at least itself: and has become more like a weird cross between Zorro – The Musical and Merrily We Roll Along — with zero joy or musicality. 2.5 wretched hours of dissonant play-within-the-play madness. 

Opening Night is at the Gielgud theatre, London, until 27 July