Reviews Roundup: Sheridan Smith in Opening Night by Ivo van Hove and Rufus Wainwright

Gielgud Theatre

Sheridan Smith in Opening Night

After her success in Shirley Valentine and Funny Girl, the much-loved Sheridan Smith‘s latest stage appearance was much anticipated. Whether her fans got what they were expecting is doubtful or, as The Independent put it, anyone hoping for ‘thespy, Funny Girl-style razzle dazzle is in for a serious shock’. Ivo van Hove‘s adaptation of a classic John Cassavetes movie focuses on a fading star rehearsing a play, and features his trademark live video centre stage.  The critics were split between those who thought it was unique and special,  and those who found it baffling, with very few taking the middle ground. There were also mixed opinions about Rufus Wainwright’s music. Word of mouth has been poor and the production will be closing over two months early, on 18 May.

[Links to full reviews are included but a number are behind paywalls and therefore may not be accessible]

Let’s start with the positive reviews. For Time Out‘s (4★) Andrzej Lukowski, ‘There is truly nothing else like ‘Opening Night’ in Theatreland at the moment – not even close.’ He meant that as a compliment. He went on to say that the live video screen ‘display is at least as important as watching the actors directly’.  ‘It unquestionably has a heart – a buoyancy and belief in humanity that’s lacking in the original film.’ He was full of praise for Sheridan Smith, saying her ‘performance is heartfelt but also surprisingly wry and mischievous’.

Arifa Akbar in The Guardian (4★) was another fan, echoing Lukowski’s view that ‘It may be the most unusual thing on the London stage right now and is captivating in its glittering strangeness’ while calling it ‘every bit as eccentric as the film but … more vivacious in this musical incarnation.’ She liked the use of live video, noting that in a scene when Smith’s character ‘turns up drunk at the stage door on opening night, the screen shows her staggering at the back of the Gielgud theatre itself, a thrilling coup de hi-tech theatre.’ She had praise for the look of the production: ‘Jan Versweyveld’s set has a central sheer red curtain that captures the razzle of the theatre but also implicates our culture of celebrity voyeurism’, and for ‘Wainwright’s slowly gorgeous music’.

Alice Saville in The Independent (4★) was not quite so enthusiastic. She said it was ‘flawed, but intermittently haunting’. She was critical of Van Hove’s production, saying it ‘isn’t sturdily built enough to contain all this emotion: it flattens and muddles where it could heighten.’ She liked Wainwright’s music which  ‘reaches new heights here’ but reserved her greatest praise for Sherdian Smith whom, she said, ‘radiates a raw hunger for love, attention and meaning’ before adding ‘her own part here is pitifully underthought’.

Patrick Marmion for the Mail (4★) didn’t much like Ivo Van Hove’s production but said ‘it’s thanks to the emotional wattage of Smith’s voice that the show really soars’, and he was ‘simply in awe of her acting’.  He also gave thanks for Rufus Wainwright’s music: ‘True, it sometimes dwindles into semi-tonal burbling. But it also explodes with the singer-songwriter’s gift for doomed glory.’

The Times‘ Clive Davis (3★) occupied the middle ground, explaining: ‘The songs and the script are occasionally inspired, but more often maddeningly opaque.’ ‘Van Hove’s book piles confusion upon confusion,’ he continued, mentioning in passing ‘Jan Versweyveld’s untidy set’. However, he did think ‘Van Hove’s trademark use of video screens makes sense’, and he thought, ‘Some of Wainwright’s songs weave a haunting, chamber opera ambience,’ even if ‘too many are derailed by overly dense lyrics.’ Despite his criticism, he declared, ‘I’m still glad I saw this show.’

And so to the negative reviews. Dominic Cavendish in the Telegraph (2★) started by identifying Sheridan Smith’s qualities of ‘adorability, fragility and fighting-spirit’ before putting the boot into Van Hove’s production, criticising ‘his rough-and-ready mise en scène, which sets the action in a rudimentary back-stage environment’ and saying: ‘Although he pioneered the use of live video on stage, here he barely bothers to justify, dramatically, his use of a roving film crew.’ Wainwright’s score is, he said, ‘stylistically all over the place and many lyrics lacking rhyme or reason.’

Sarah Hemming in the Financial Times (2★) was happy with the star: ‘Sheridan Smith…gives a terrific performance at its heart…she brings great wit, infectious warmth and aching vulnerability’. As for the production, ‘The multi-layering becomes confusing and alienating…and seems to swamp the characters who remain one-note.’

For Sarah Crompton at Whats On Stage (2★), it was ‘a confusing mess… (it) seems to fail from the moment it begins. Other aspects of the production left her cold: she referred to ‘Jan Versweyveld’s cluttered set’ and said Rufus Wainwright ‘never provides is a truly memorable melody or a song that carries the meaning of the show.’ Even Sheridan Smith, she said, ‘struggles to make a mark with the dislocations in script and character.’ She concluded it was ‘one of the most baffling wastes of talent’.

Aliya Al-Hassan over at Broadway World (2★) said: ‘I’ve rarely seen a production more determined to confuse and frustrate an audience.’ It was, she explained, ‘disjointed, lacking clarity and losing all the spontaneity of Cassavetes’ signature style.’ Honing in on Sheridan Smith’s character, she said, ‘van Hove gives her no narrative arc and has written a woman who fails to convince as a real person on pretty much every level. It’s perhaps not surprising to note that the director, bookwriter, lyricist, composer and designer of this show are all men.’ Ouch! In Rufus Wainwright’s music, she noted, ‘There are meandering, downbeat, directionless songs, no particularly captivating melodies and there isn’t a single refrain or memorable piece of music to be found.’ As for the video screens, ‘they add little but a visual overload.’

You might think that was as bad as a review could be but… Stefan Kyriazis in the Express (1★) only found the show worth one star. How’s this for an opening paragraph? ‘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.’ He drew attention to the live video relay that The Guardian so loved, calling it Smith’s ‘tiresomely attention-seeking Act 2 stunt of collapsing on the pavement outside…If only she’d stayed there.’ Was there anything he liked? Seemingly not: ‘Rufus Wainwright’s tuneless tunes, endless pointless and intrusive camerawork (enough, already), some atrocious acting and frustratingly bad staging.’

Fiona Mountford in The i (1★) delivered another damning verdict, calling it ‘bewilderingly terrible’ and ‘self-indulgent twaddle…through which a nasty vein of misogyny pumps insistently, and sections of which are devoid of even basic narrative sense.’ She also found ‘This overused video conceit appears increasingly tired now and adds nothing.’ Rufus Wainwright’s efforts didn’t impress her either: ‘the music remains awkwardly unembedded in the action and fails to add any depth to the woeful script.’ At least she liked Sheridan Smith’s ‘effervescent and full-hearted performance’.

A couple of American heavyweights weighed in but neither award stars. Nevertheless, it’s clear they were not fans. Houman Barekat in the New York Times said: ‘Van Hove has transformed a taut, subtly observed character study into a sludgy melodrama.’ He thought ‘Smith is miscast …Her onstage bearing exudes a homely approachability rather than high-strung poise or inscrutable aloofness.’   Add to which, ‘The songs, by Rufus Wainwright, are algorithmically bland.’  David Benedict for Variety called it ‘a mess’.

Opening Night can be seen at the Gielgud Theatre until 18 May 2024. Buy tickets directly from

Average critic rating (out of 5) 2.6★

Value rating  28 (Value rating is the Average Critic Rating divided by the typical ticket price. In theory, this means the higher the score the better value but, because of price variations, a West End show could be excellent value if it scores above 30 while an off-West End show may need to score above 60. This rating is based on opening night prices- theatres may raise or lower prices during the run.)

If you’ve seen Opening Night, you are welcome to add your review and rating below (but please keep it relevant and polite)






One Reply to “Reviews Roundup: Sheridan Smith in Opening Night by Ivo van Hove and Rufus Wainwright”

  1. I turned to my son at the interval and said ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’territory to which he responded, ‘Thank goodness I thought I was going to have to pretend to like it!’
    Sadly despite Sheridan Smith’s valiant efforts no one could make this script work.Such a waste of talent like Nicola Hughes and Nicholas Hadley and the many others on stage mostly doing nothing!
    Overuse of his usual video screens and devices like having live outside sequences they just distracted from the action instead of adding to it.Stunning only in it’s complete lack of narrative and failure to produce any emotion from its audience other than confusion.An utter cold mess of a production.Wriiten by a man and produced by a man it portrayed woman in a way I found frankly mysognistic.

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