Opening Night

Book by Ivo Van Hove, music & lyrics by Rufus Wainwright
Gielgud Theatre

Listing details and ticket info...

Sheridan Smith as Myrtle Gordon Credit: Jan Versweyveld
Sheridan Smith as Myrtle Gordon and Shira Haas as Nancy Credit: Jan Versweyveld
Sheridan Smith as Myrtle Gordon Credit: Jan Versweyveld
Benjamin Walkera s Maurice and Sheridan Smith as Myrtle Gordon Credit: Jan Versweyveld
Shira Haas as Nancy, Sheridan Smith as Myrtle Gordon and Nicola Hughes as playwright Sarah Credit: Jan Versweyveld
Opening Night - the company Credit: Jan Versweyveld

In this stage musical adaptation of John Cassavetes’s 1977 film, Ivo Van Hove once again indulges in his technique of simultaneous video along with the audience view of the on-stage performance of this play about the turmoil of the final preview days of The Second Woman, a show about to open on Broadway.

The conceit is that the cameras intruding on that play's rehearsals and previews are making a documentary about that production's creation, but in fact they are really there to give the Gielgud audience intimate close-ups and off-stage action; the technique actually emphasises the theatricality of the experience.

The Second Woman stars veteran actress Myrtle Gordon, who is going through something of a change of life crisis and concerned about her future career path. The character she plays has echoes in her own life, and things aren’t helped by her leading man being her ex-husband Maurice. There is added trauma when a teenage fan called Nancy is run over and killed just after collecting her autograph. Myrtle now sees apparitions of Nancy, a reminder of the youth that has slipped away. Will Myrtle crack under the pressure or will she pull through?

Whether subtly in close-up, her face almost filling the stage, going wildly out of control or lying catatonic on the ground, Myrtle gets a powerful and committed performance from Sheridan Smith, an actress with her own understanding of breakdown. We don’t see a temperamental star but a vulnerable woman.

Myrtle somehow keeps going despite the recurring presence of Shira Haas’s ethereal Nancy (who even sings a song sitting on her lap, so close does she feel her), but those around her—director Manny (Hadley Fraser), producer David (John Marquez), ex-husband Maurice (Benjamin Walker) and the rest of the company—go from concern about her to fears that their show is bound for disaster. But Von Hove’s production doesn’t make us really care.

It is difficult to feel involved when the huge screen commands so much of our attention. The actors in front of it don’t get much opportunity to engage with the audience. There is so much going on in such a mixture of ways. Film close-ups suggest naturalism, but Jan Versweyveld’s set gives us the opposite with an unrealistic row of dressing room mirrors under that big screen and multiple locations, the documentary cameras invade public preview performances as well as rehearsals and the show’s most dramatic moment is totally theatrical.

Von Hove’s use of cameras has sometimes worked well, as in immersive productions when it has allowed audiences to join action that they would not otherwise see, but here it becomes far too dominant. We go to cinema to see films or watch them on television. The Gielgud is a theatre and this is a play—one with songs too. Rufus Wainwright’s songs aren’t the kind you whistle as you leave the theatre, but he’s an accomplished songsmith and knows how to blend voices beautifully. I particularly liked a quartet (or is it a quintet) in the first half and a duet after the interval, though his lyrics are sometimes a bit clunky.

This isn’t a great musical, but Sheridan Smith is impressive and it is great to have her back in the West End.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton

*Some links, including Amazon,,, ATG Tickets, LOVEtheatre, BTG Tickets, Ticketmaster, LW Theatres and QuayTickets, are affiliate links for which BTG may earn a small fee at no extra cost to the purchaser.

Are you sure?