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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

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Shirley Valentine Proves Sheridan Smith Is Our Funniest Star

“I’m going to Greece for the sex — sex for breakfast, sex for dinner, sex for tea and sex for supper!” shrieks Sheridan Smith as Shirley Valentine in this knowingly playful revival.

The same age as Shirley, Smith performs this midlife monologue with heart-catching charm (“It’s like theMiddle East, there are no solutions”) and this classy production exhibits real affection. Smith is disarmingly good.

Sheridan Smith as Shirley Valentine

Like a wonky Samuel Beckett character, Shirley’s most responsive confidante is ‘wall’. And later a rock.

In these circumstances, any change could only be an improvement. Things really get going towards the end of act 1 as she slams the door on her marriage and sets out into the future.

Willy Russell, author of Educating Rita and Blood Brothers, once said of the latter that it was for people who don’t like musicals. Shirley Valentine is a play for people who don’t like plays, I think.

It’s entirely engaging and brilliant.

Anyway, fizzing Shirley heads for Greece where she blossoms like a flower in the sun, always playing directly to gallery. A lovely long bask in Smith’s maturing talent.

Structurally, this play is pretty much a music hall stand-up, directed with efficiency by Matthew Dunster. His production shrewdly offsets Paul Wills’ monochrome kitchen designs with pastel costumes and gorgeous beams of Mediterranean lighting designs by Lucy Carter. 

Fortunately, Smith more than delivers the goods in this swift-moving show about a woman who catches a glimpse of the life she could be living. Playfully cooking chips and egg, Shirley reveals her innermost thoughts to us, thereby endearing herself artlessly to the audience.

“Why do we get all these feelings and dreams and thoughts if they can’t be used?”, Smith says out loud – the power lies in its honesty.

Shirley’s ability to transcend the limitations of the class system is a camp joy to behold: as she conclusively tells us at the play’s end, she is now free to make her own life choices. Of course, women have moved on since it was written. Today, they know they have choices but that was only dawning on people like Shirley back then.

Reviews have been correctly brilliant. An encouraging sign that we as a community can accept the fact that they don’t make ‘em like they used to. Is this what civilised society looks like? Perhaps.

It seems to me that Russell is a writer of genuine nobility, with a rare gift and wit for humanity. (Although The Stage did label the production ‘well-worn’, but Smith is quite literally above average when it comes to the whole being-a- performer and transcending the material thing, so I’m not sure if this really proves whatever point it is I’m trying to make.)

West End Producer David Pugh’s production is a love letter to live theatre – breaking the Duke Of York’s box office record for advance bookings totalling £4million in the process – and entertaining as hell.

During act 2 on the opening night, Smith accidentally knocked a wine glass prop onto the stage.

SMASH.

Her knowing composure, and ability to stay in character during the hiccup, was astonishing reminding everyone she is, by a distance, the funniest actor in the West End right now.

“Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

And if she hadn’t been awarded an OBE already, I’d be starting a petition.

Shirley Valentine runs at the Duke Of York’s Theatre, London until 3 June 2023.