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Opening Night at the Gielgud Theatre review: even Sheridan Smith can't save this dismally muddled show

Sheridan Smith and Benjamin Walker in Opening Night (Jan Versweyveld)
Sheridan Smith and Benjamin Walker in Opening Night (Jan Versweyveld)

This dismally muddled, self-important, furtively misogynist musical about an actress going to pieces squanders the talents of everyone involved, even breaking Sheridan Smith’s unique ability to connect with an audience.

It’s adapted from John Cassavetes’ 1977 film by Ivo van Hove, whose London productions are either sublime or, like this one, awful.

Singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright contributes his first-ever musical score, a hodgepodge of genre pastiche and schoolboy rhyme so lame I hope it will also be his last. The use of live video adds another tiresome layer of introspection to a project wedged firmly up its own fundament.

The underlying message is that oafish audiences don’t appreciate the pain of creatives who crucify themselves on stage every night, and that it’s tough to be a woman. Certainly the talents of Smith and Wainwright seem inextricably linked to their sensitivity, but Van Hove leaves both of them horribly exposed here. He puts Smith in particular through the wringer, forcing her to confront her vulnerabilities and blaming us for watching. How dare he?

 (Jan Versweyveld)
(Jan Versweyveld)

Smith plays Myrtle, an acclaimed but alcoholic actor, struggling through previews in a new play opposite her ex-husband Maurice (Benjamin Walker). He, the oafishly aggressive director Manny (Hadley Fraser) and the improbably saintly producer David (John Marquez) are by turns infatuated and exasperated by her.

Writer Sarah (Nicola Hughes) is furious at Myrtle’s attempts to change her vapid character, Virginia, who is slapped, shamed about her age and derided for not being a mother (“she’s not even a housewife!” as one exultantly vicious lyric puts it). Myrtle’s behaviour gets more erratic after a young female fan (Shira Haas) is run over outside the theatre and becomes an interfering spirit representing lost youth and sensuality.

Smith is required to change costume on stage and is repeatedly mauled. She, and Amy Lennox as Manny’s Stepford-ish wife, are often barefoot and ingratiating around masterful patriarchs. Both they and Hughes can at least sing Wainwright’s embarrassing songs on key, which is more than can be said for some cast members.

There’s something about Cassavetes’ jarring film that makes directors want to adapt but also distort it. Van Hove did an earlier musical version in Amsterdam in 2006, and 24-hour play The Second Woman – captivatingly performed by Ruth Wilson at the Young Vic last year – sees an actress play a scene from it 100 times with 100 different men.

Here Van Hove simplifies and updates the jazzy narrative of the film and shoves everything subtextual into the foreground. The show becomes a series of needy pleas for love and tedious emotional collapses, while Wainwright’s score skips from a Ravel homage/ripoff to hollow torch songs to footling showtunes. His lyrics range from the staggeringly obvious to the buttock-clenchingly pretentious.

Jan Versweyveld’s skeletal theatre set is dominated by a screen showing pitiless live close-ups, freeze frames and aeriel views of the main cast – mostly Smith – and filler shots of the other actors rhubarbing in a corridor. After disastrous previews, some changes have apparently been made, including the removal of a prolonged vacuuming scene (yes, really). But the show remains a hot mess, unsalvageable.

Roll on closing night.

Gielgud Theatre, to July 27; buy tickets here