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Sheridan Smith's best stage roles, as her new musical Opening Night makes its debut in the West End

Sheridan Smith in Opening Night (Jan Versweyveld)
Sheridan Smith in Opening Night (Jan Versweyveld)

Theatreland is always abuzz when there’s a new Sheridan Smith show in the works. The 42-year-old British actor has spent her stellar 25-year career starring in musicals, plays, TV shows and films and has picked up two Oliviers, two International Emmys, a BAFTA and a National Television award along the way. She’s also released two music albums – both of which made it into the top 20 in the UK album charts.

Now she’s returning to the stage in Opening Night, a new musical based on John Cassavetes' 1977 film, which is opening at the Gielgud Theatre tomorrow. The new show boasts a book and direction from Tony and Olivier award-winning Belgian director Ivo van Hove, and music and lyrics by Rufus Wainwright.

Smith stars as Myrtle, an actor whose life is derailed by the death of a fan just days before the opening of a new play. “I knew I had to do the play as a way of taking control of what I went through,” said Smith to one paper, touching on her own 2016 breakdown. “I felt so ashamed of that time. I need to prove I’m not that person. It’s been very cathartic.”

On the eve of what promises to be another extraordinary performance, we take a look at the actor’s best roles over the years.

Into The Woods (1998-1999)

Sheridan Smith as Little Red Riding Hood in Into The Woods (Courtesy of the Donmar Warehouse, photographer Ivan Kyncl)
Sheridan Smith as Little Red Riding Hood in Into The Woods (Courtesy of the Donmar Warehouse, photographer Ivan Kyncl)

In her first major stage role, 17-year-old Smith starred as Little Red Riding Hood in The Donmar’s 1998 production of Into the Woods. Stephen Sondheim’s musical, which has a book from James Lapine, weaves together various Brothers Grimm fairy tales, and has been revived for the stage many times since its 1987 Broadway premiere. The production was directed by John Crowley and nominated for an Olivier award. In a 2021 interview, Smith said that when she met Sondheim she greeted him with, “Hiya, Steve!”. He apparently replied, “I take it you’re playing Little Red Riding Hood?”

Little Shop of Horrors (2006-2007)

Romance blossoms: unlikely lovers Audrey
Romance blossoms: unlikely lovers Audrey

This horror-comedy rock-musical premiered on Broadway in 1982 and in the West End the following year. When it returned to the West End in 2007 Smith starred as shop worker Audrey, who works at a run down flower shop with her co-worker Seymour (Paul Keating). Alistair McGowan played Audrey’s sadistic dentist boyfriend, Orin. The performance put the 25-year-old Smith on the map: she was nominated for the Olivier Award for Best Actress in a Musical.

Legally Blonde (2009-2011)

Just the ticket: Sheridan Smith in Legally Blonde
Just the ticket: Sheridan Smith in Legally Blonde

It was a role that seemed like it had been made for Smith. She played Elle Woods, the lead in the original London cast when the Broadway musical adapted from the hit film transferred to the West End.

When her boyfriend breaks up with her saying she’s not serious enough to be wife material, Elle applies for Harvard Law School to prove him wrong.

Sheridan Smith is emphatically the star of the show,” said the Standard. “Elle says her favourite drink is Red Bull, and there's a caffeinated kick in everything Smith does. It's a performance of great warmth and enthusiasm.”

She was nominated for an Evening Standard Theatre Award for the first time and won the Olivier for Best Actress in a Musical.

Flare Path (2011)

This 2011 revival of Terence Rattigan’s Second World War play was Trevon Nunn’s debut as artistic director of Theatre Royal Haymarket, and was chosen to mark what would have been the 100th birthday of the British writer. It also starred Sienna Miller, James Purefoy and Harry Hadden-Paton, and was so popular it extended its run to meet demand.

Smith shone in the love triangle between a film star, a pilot and his wife: “The best performance comes from Sheridan Smith as the Count's wife Doris,” said the Standard. “Always a warm presence, Smith radiates impish charm, but in her moments of doubt and sadness proves almost woundingly touching.” Smith won Best Actress at the Evening Standard Theatre Awards for the role and also another Olivier, two in two years.

Hedda Gabler (2012)

Daniel Lapaine and Sheridan Smith in Hedda Gabler (Alastair Muir)
Daniel Lapaine and Sheridan Smith in Hedda Gabler (Alastair Muir)

Ibsen’s 1890 play follows Hedda, a woman who feels trapped inside a loveless marriage. This staging at The Old Vic was well-reviewed (it was directed by Anna Mackmin and worked off a 2008 Brian Friel script adaptation), and once again it was Smith who pulled in the highest praise: “Sheridan Smith is hardly a new face, but here, in her most ambitious role to date, she confirms that she’s one of the stage stars of her generation. She is simply thrilling in Ibsen’s portrait of a woman who rebels against a numb and rigid world,” said the Standard.

A Midsummer Night's Dream (2013)

 (Johan Persson)
(Johan Persson)

A Midsummer Night's Dream was the fourth show of celebrated director Michael Grandage’s season at the Noël Coward Theatre. Smith was starring alongside David Walliams as Bottom, and with Sixties music and a hippie aesthetic (spliffs included) it was undoubtedly a novel take on Shakespeare’s classic comedy.

But while some reviewers loved it, describing the play as a “sexy dream” and a “constant delight to the eye”, others, like the Standard, felt it lacked magic. What was agreed was Smith’s success at playing Titania (as is traditional she also played Hippolyta): “As Hippolyta, ruler of the Amazons, Smith looks like an extra from Mad Men,” said the Standard. “But once the action moves to the chaotic forest it’s a different story, as she brings both bohemian vigour and effortless charm to Titania, the queen of the fairies.”

Funny Girl (2015-2017)

As Fanny Brice in Funny Girl (Marc Brenner)
As Fanny Brice in Funny Girl (Marc Brenner)

This 1964 musical reimagines the life of Broadway star Fanny Brice, unpacking her turbulent relationship with gambler Nicky Arnstein. It was a hit from the off: Barbara Streisand starred in the original production, which picked up eight Tony award nominations. In the UK, Smith played Brice for several years, as the production transferred from the Menier Chocolate Factory to the Savoy Theatre and then went on a UK tour.

“Sheridan Smith is one of British theatre’s truly golden performers – a versatile star who thrills with her ability to be simultaneously sensitive, touching and hilarious. Here she’s on glorious form,” said the Standard in its four-star review.

Shirley Valentine (2023)

 (Helen Murray)
(Helen Murray)

The Standard’s Nick Curtis may have found fault with how story of a working class Liverpool housewife on holiday in Greece had aged, but was effusive in his praise about Smith’s performance.

In last year’s revival of Willy Russell’s 1986 play, at the Duke of York’s Theatre, she held the audience in the palm of her hand, and was praised by reviewers for her charm and conviction: “With almost any other actress I suspect it would be unwatchably patronising and old fashioned,” said Curtis.

Opening Night, Gielgud Theatre, March 27 to July 27; buy tickets here