Opening Night review – A sensational Sheridan Smith can’t save this catastrophic car crash | Theatre | Entertainment

Talk about tempting fate… This show actually opens with a car crash. Oh, the irony. The production is more like a multi-lane pile-up, complete with overturned leaking oil tanker, giant sinkholes and possibly an earthquake, asteroid or charging rhino or two.

Not even a charismatic, soul-baring Sheridan Smith can save Ivo van Hove’s abominable, misjudged musical adaptation of John Cassavetes’ iconic, challenging 1977 film starring Gena Rowlands. Examinations of the punishing relationship between art and artist, or between a woman and the varyingly toxic men in her life, or even between self-destructive and self are all squandered.

As the curtain fell, the poor ladies in front of me muttering, “I don’t understand – what just happened?” echoed the bewildered slump of an audience who sat (some smartly snoozed) through Rufus Wainwright’s tuneless tunes, endless pointless and intrusive camerawork (enough, already), some atrocious acting and frustratingly bad staging. 

I’m particularly jealous of one witty early online commentator who simply posted, “Is this show an early April Fool’s?” Frankly, anything is possible, since absolutely nothing made sense.

Smith has been hitting headlines almost nightly with the tiresomely attention-seeking Act 2 stunt of collapsing on the pavement outside. It is, of course, filmed and relayed to the audience inside (yawn, done already in Nicole Schezinger’s Sunset Boulevard.) If only she’d stayed there.

The ironies continue, since this is a musical play about a play that is falling apart in front of the audience’s very eyes. 

Smith’s unstable Broadway star Myrtle drinks to numb her despair (I increasingly sympathised). She repeatedly improvises scenes and magically invents songs on the spot during the preview run because she can’t find meaning in the script. Again, moi aussi. But also, this would never, ever happen in reality. And if it did, word would spread and the production would already be dead in the water.

Then again, it’s often tough to know what is actually happening, what she is imagining (we’ll get to that), what is part of the play, within the play and so on ad infinitum. Anyone still with me…?

Mostly, the constantly filmed footage on the huge screen just shows what is actually happening on stage. Which is distracting, redundant, and gave me a headache flicking between the two. Other times it shows stuff in the corridor and street outside. So far, so blah. Occasionally it shows something interesting, like Myrtle’s psychotic breakdown, which happens in delayed time over and over, in an infinity mirror effect.

Ah yes, the breakdown. So, insecure egomaniac narcissist Myrtle’s been hallucinating Nancy, the dead girl from the opening crash – a hysterical, teenage, hyper-sexed fan. It’s a way of processing her own fears of ageing. Or something. The bonkers role is played with impeccable conviction by Unorthodox’s Shira Haas. 

Myrtle’s also dealing with starring in the play opposite her ex-husband, who hates her and plays her character’s current husband. She (the character) also has a previous husband and is sleeping with her director and fancied by her producer. Hang on, that’s Myrtle. I think.

It’s all impenetrably staged in a single open space, cluttered with camera operators, an amorphous anonymous large backing cast, bits of furniture and the full band, tucked on one side.  It’s rarely clear what is the rehearsals, previews, real life or backstage. The only thing that soon becomes absolutely crystal is that it is impossible to care.

Smith rawly echoes her own previous well-publicised mental health issues and is at the height of her powers, but the fans flocking to see her might feel rightly betrayed by the whole mess. Be boldly, bewilderingly experimental and purposefully subvert every tenet of musical theatre and, you know, actual audience enjoyment by all means, but don’t use a big name to draw in unsuspecting punters.

My guest commented that many of the predominantly talented people on stage seemed uncomfortable, probably aware that nothing was working. How could they not? The gimmick of turning the camera on the audience at one toe-curling point backfired when it showed rows of unimpressed po faces.  

The show tempts fate yet again with lines about not caring what the critics think, or a character saying he’s been in theatre for decades and still doesn’t understand it. Meanwhile, Wainwright’s score finally achieves a certain emotional resonance later in Act 2, but not enough to excuse painful, trite lyrics exhorting us to “make magic out of tragic.”

Sorry, but ‘tragic’ is too kind for this unforgivable waste of audiences’ time and money.


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