Life & Culture

Opening Night review: Lights, camera, action…and stagefright


First-night nerves: Sheridan Smith (centre) as Myrtle and company

Gielgud Theatre | ★★★★★

Half the audience love it, half the audience hate it,” says an exasperated Broadway producer in this daring adaptation of John Cassavetes’s 1977 film about the art of acting. I suspect audiences may feel the same way about this multi-layered musical composed by the singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright.

Like the movie on which it is based, Ivo van Hove’s production keeps its audience off balance. Central is stage star Myrtle Gordon, here played by a terrific Sheridan Smith who, as she approaches opening night in her latest play, fears she is losing her mojo and possibly her mind.

Her fragility is triggered while leaving the theatre after a preview performance. She is approached for an autograph by teenage fan Nancy (played by the mesmerising Israeli Unorthodox star Shira Haas) who is then randomly killed in an accident while crossing the road.

With opening night nearing, Myrtle is caught in a psychological storm caused by too much drink, self-doubt and also doubt about how well-written her latest character is too, much to the frustration of the director (Hadley Fraser) and the play’s author (Nicola Hughes).

On top of this heady mix, hand-held cameras follow Myrtle on and off stage and as with Cassavetes’s film it is not always clear whether you watching Myrtle or the character she is playing.

But what is clear is that in a role which to some extent mirrors her experience as a performer, Smith is on absolutely stunning form as Myrtle. So is Haas, who sings powerfully and, as the memory or ghost of Nancy who haunts Myrtle, upstages everyone in every scene she is in.

All this could so easily have ended up as a self-indulgent dog’s dinner. And perhaps it is to those who haven’t seen the original movie (available on YouTube), which undoubtedly provides helpful context with this most meta of shows.

Wainwright’s score meanwhile also pays off. The coruscating melodies will be familiar to the singer-songwriter’s fans but so will the astute lyric writing, which articulates both an emotional condition and a state of mind. True, there is something narcissistic about theatre that puts the subject of theatre on its stage. The same could be said of The Motion and the Cue, the National Theatre’s hit play about John Gielgud and Richard Burton’s production of Hamlet. But there is something instructive about seeing how close great shows can get to being a car crash. A life lesson, even. If you hadn’t guessed I’m in the half of the audience who love it.

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