Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Opening Night: Review

Opening Night (aka Night at the Vulcan; 1951) finds Ngaio Marsh returning to the world of theatre--comfortable home turf for an author who claimed the theatre as her first passion. This time Marsh focuses on the back-stage antics going on as the players at the Vulcan Theater prepare for the opening of a new play by a brilliant, but difficult playwright. We see everything through the vantage point of Martyn Tarne, a young actress-in-waiting who has recently arrived from New Zealand with the hopes of landing a part on a London stage. After making a discouraging round of the theater casting calls, she comes to the Vulcan just a tad too late to audition for a part. She's down to the last bit of her money and has no idea what do when she overhears Bob Grantley, the business manager, frantically calling round for a replacement dresser for Helen Hamilton--the play's leading lady.

Helen's dresser has been rushed to the hospital and Grantley needs a substitute quick. Martyn needs a job--at this point any job will do and she offers herself as dresser. She immediately finds herself in a seething cauldron of backstage emotions and interactions. Helen Hamilton is married to the leading man, Clark Bennington. Bennington is an aging, alcoholic actor who is thoroughly disliked by just about everyone...including his wife. Helen has been having an affair with Adam Poole, the Vulcan's actor-manager. Bennington's niece, Gay Gainsford, has been cast in a rather important role--as a blood relation to Pool's character who (supposedly) looks remarkably like him and is a somewhat depraved version of himself. She's been making a rather bad showing in the part (not helped by the fact that she really looks nothing like Poole) and is having a case of the nerves. Dr. John James Rutherford, the playwright and another thoroughly unpleasant man, is having fits over Gay's inability to play the part, making himself generally disagreeable to all and sundry, and is quoting Shakespeare at everyone. J. G. Darcy and Parry Percival, the remaining actors, add their nerves and emotional outbursts to the mix.

Martyn's arrival doesn't help matters. Because you see, she does look like Poole (they wind up being second cousins or some such) and could absolutely play the part. To Gay's dismay, Martyn is made her understudy in addition to the dresser's role and on opening night, Gay has a fit of hysterics and is unable to go on. Martyn, of course, steps in to save the day and winds up being a sensation. She barely has time to take in her good fortune (and all the applause) when Clark Bennington doesn't show up for his curtain calls and is discovered dead in his dressing room. To the actors, it has every appearance of suicide. But when Inspector Roderick Alleyn arrives from the Yard, he is not convinced. And, of course, he and Inspector Fox will find all the clues and discover the culprit.

There were several things that I enjoyed about this one: The opening scenes with Martyn--learning of her journey round the theaters and her bad luck at the auditions; her interactions with the fellow-hard luck actress outside the Vulcan; and her conversations with Fred Badger, the nightwatchman. In fact, I liked Fred Badger so much that I kind of hoped that we'd see more of him. But, alas. Jacko, Adam Poole's right-hand man and jack of all trades is also an interesting character--again, particularly in his interactions with Martyn. Overall, I'd say that I enjoyed the characters' interactions with each other--barring a few jarring exceptions (Gay Gainsford gets on my last nerve, for instance). I really do think Marsh was in her element when writing about the theatre and the people of that world. She creates interesting and realistic characters and it's evident that she's writing from experience. ★★★★

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