Monday, 12 October 1998

Ngaio Marsh: Opening Night (1951)

Edition: Penguin
Review number: 133
Revised:  21/01/2000 (Thanks to Kevin Davenport for pointing out errors in the original version of this review)

Opening Night, something of a return to form for Ngaio Marsh after a series of somewhat disappointing stories, is closely related to the short story I Can Find My Way Out, with which it shares a setting. Following the murder at the Dolphin Theatre which is the subject of the earlier story, it has lain empty for the best part of fifteen years. In the superstitious business of acting, nobody wanted to reopen such an unlucky theatre.

Eventually, it is acquired by well-known actor Adam Poole, to put on a new play by the distinguished author John James Rutherford. He is joined in this by Helena Hamilton, famous as the leading lady to many of Adam Poole's performances though rather older, and her husband, the once great now alcoholic actor Clark Bennington, resentful of the old love affair between Adam and Helena.

The play calls for an actress who resembles Adam, and Bennington insists that his neice Gay Gainsford is cast. This suits no one other than Bennington, for she is not interested in the type of symbolical drama Rutherford writes, is helplessly out of her depth, unhappy about having to change her appearance to more closely resembly Adam (whom she is not very like and finds it difficult to give the impression of resembling by apparently unconsciously copying his mannerisms on stage). She was far happier playing in regional rep, doing parts she could understand and which suited her. She becomes even more uneasy after the appearance on the scene of Martyn Tarne.

Martyn Tarne, a young actress from New Zealand seeking work in London, is really the main character in the novel, which is told from her point of view (though in the third person). She is distantly related to Adam, but doesn't wish to presume on their kinship, so that his theatre is the last that she goes to looking for work. She has missed the auditions, but overhears a conversation by chance and volunteers to replace Helena's usual dresser, who is ill.

That in itself would not be a problem, but she rather unfortunately possesses a startling resemblance to Adam, sufficiently so to provoke rumours that she may be a result of a love affair of Adam's from a tour of New Zealand twenty years ago. Her appearance and her aptitude for the part earn her the role of Gay's understudy, and pressure mounts for her to play the part outright, particularly from Rutherford. This culminates when Gay refuses to go on for the first night, and Martyn has a great triumph.

The theatrical fairy story is immediately overshadowed by the death in his dressing room of Bennington, in a marder got up to look like a suicide inspired by the earlier Dolphin murder.

Perhaps a little on the soft-centred side to rank with Marsh's best novels, Opening Night is nevertheless an excellent example of the crime fiction genre; reading it is an enjoyable experience.

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