Opening Night by Ngaio Marsh


AKA Night at the Vulcan

published 1951

Opening Night

[Martyn Tarne is an aspiring actress: penniless, she has taken a job as a dresser in a theatre]

But as she turned to go she saw herself, cruelly reflected in the long cheval-glass. It was not, of course, the first time she had seen herself that night; she had passed before the looking-glasses a dozen times and had actually polished them, but her attention had been ruthlessly fixed on the job in hand and she had not once focused her eyes on her own image. Now she did so. She saw a girl in a yellow sweater and dark skirt with black hair that hung in streaks over her forehead. She saw a white, heart-shaped face with smudges under the eyes and a mouth that was normally firm and delicate but now drooped with fatigue. She raised her hand, pushed the hair back from her face and stared for a moment or two longer. Then she switched off the light and blundered across the passage into the greenroom. Here, collapsed in an armchair with her overcoat across her, she slept heavily until morning.

commentary: In general I bow to my friend Lucy Fisher’s views on Ngaio Marsh – she is an expert on the books, and this is one of her favourites. In her very useful list of the Marsh books, she says
Her masterpiece and a Cinderella story set in the theatre. Seen largely through the eyes of an aspiring actress who gives the narrative a witty flavour.
I’m not sure I saw it as a masterpiece, but it is very readable and enjoyable. The murder and the arrival of Inspector Alleyn are very late, which is always a good thing in a Marsh book.

The first long section describes the final rehearsals for a new play, one that is beset with affairs and rivalries and nepotism and general problems. (The play sounds dire in fact.) All the details have the ring of authenticity – Marsh used her own theatrical background to great effect in many of her books, but never more so than in this one. The horrible dressing-rooms, the hissing of the gasfires, the tubs of make-up, the bitching, the flowers for the stars, the backstage staff, everyone smoking and drinking the whole time – it’s all there.

But I wasn’t that taken with our heroine Martyn – first off, what a ridiculous first name, which no-one comments on in the book. (I suppose if your own name is Ngaio you might have a different view.) But I found the schoolgirl fairytale aspects irritating – she is penniless and reduced to sleeping secretly in the theatre, above, but


is going to end up with an important role in the play.

As Alleyn says:
‘Miss Tarne was the sole female dresser and she’d been promoted overnight to what I believe I should call starletdom. Which in itself seems to me to be a rum go. I’ve always imagined female dressers to be cups-of-tea in alpaca aprons and not embryo actresses.’
I thought she was rather feeble. There were also the usual tiresome remarks about gay characters, and a rather unnecessary scene of marital rape.

On the plus side, I liked a harassed young woman coining this description:
‘It’s twenty sides of hopeless hell. Honestly, it is.’
And an early use of the quintessential modern UK phrase, ‘early doors’:
And at two o’clock the queues for the early doors began to form up in Carpet Street.
- apparently that’s its origin, though it is used in all kinds of situations these days.

And a flash of just how funny Marsh could be when she was in the mood – the two policemen are investigating gifting in the theatre:
‘The standard for first night keepsakes seems to be set at a high level,’ Alleyn muttered. ‘This is a French clock, Fox, with a Sevres face encircled with garnets. What do you suppose the gentleman gave the lady?’ 
‘Would a tiara be common?’ asked Fox. 
‘Let’s go next door and see.’

Overall, a mixed verdict from me.

HOWEVER, I do have one major complaint, which is that in the early part of the book there is much mention of a fancy dress event, the Combined Arts Ball, and possible costumes are designed and planned and sewn. But in the event, no-one goes to the Ball, we see not a glimpse of it or its outfits – the murder takes precedence.

This was a sad disappointment to Clothes in Books, always a fan of fancy dress. It’s like Chekhov’s gun – you can’t be going on about a costume party, and raising our hopes, and then dashing them like that. Tut, Ms Marsh. Murder is a small crime in comparison.

In niche blogging, CiB has looked at the role of the theatrical dresser before now, as well as more general theatrical settings in a joint blog with Christine Poulson

Picture is from the Clover Vintage Tumblr, a 1951 ensemble, and a lot more cheery than Martyn ever seems to be.


  1. This may not be Marsh's best, Moira, but as you say, still enjoyable. She's done better characters, in my opinion. But you know, I did like the atmosphere she created with the Vulcan itself - the theatre building. Nicely done, I thought.

    1. Yes, and a good theatrical mystery is always a job even if it's not perfect - same applies to academic mysteries in my view.

  2. Her invented plays all sound awful - except perhaps for The Rat and the Beaver, in the Cat and the Canary genre. You forgot to mention a character called Jacko who speaks in broken English and whom we are supposed to love. And his fancy dress costumes are all made out of cheese cloth and painted cardboard... but perhaps fabric was still rationed.

    Is it Parry Percival whose hat is of "too bright a green"?

    1. I disdained Jacko because of my disappointment over the fancydress costumes, however cheesecloth-y. You're never in doubt with Marsh as to which characters you are expected to like...
      Green hat and yellow gloves.

  3. I didn't actually sign up to anything just to comment here because good old Anon is quicker but for decades I have wondered the same thing about "Martyn"'s name - why does no-one remark on it, or explain her father always wanted a son, or something, anything.

    1. Thanks for coming by. Yes, exactly, you put it so well: you can call your characters whatever you want, but you may have to give a word of explanation...

  4. I do find with the Marsh theatrical mysteries that she's much more interested in the whole 'putting-on-a-show' set-up, but feels a bit lost without the murder and Alleyn. You're right about keeping the murder and inevitable investigation until late on, as it does give her less opportunity to indulge in all her worst habits with endless boring interviews with the suspects.

    Naming characters is an art. I remember reading the original screen novella that Graham Greene wrote for THE THIRD MAN. The character played by Joseph Cotten in the movie was originally called Rollo Martens rather than Holly Martens, and there's no doubt in my mind that the movie name works better. It's hard to say exactly why, but it just it.


    1. It's not clear exactly where you stand, but I'm all for more 'putting on a show' and less of the murder!
      I actually wrote - on the blog and in the Guardian - on the very topic of Rollo versus Holly here with a link to Guardian:
      - and you'll see that I preferred Rollo. But now I'm not as certain as I claim to be there: maybe Holly is better...

    2. I'm fond of a good murder (if you see what I mean!), but she always writes more enthusiatically about the stage. Like I was saying about Christie, it would have been fascinating to see Marsh try something outside the crime genre, where she didn't have to shoehorn in all the interviews and alibis.

      Rollo just sounds like he should wear a cravat and have his monogrammed tankard under the bar of the local pub. Rollo and Holly are both daft names for a bloke, but Holly seems more correctly daft.


    3. Yes, it would have been interesting to see her do something else. I think the reverse of Angela Thirkell -she's very good at keeping track of where everyone is without making it Marsh-y boring, so should've done crime!

      OK, yes, I bow to what you say about Rollo and Holly. And 'correctly daft' is my new phrase of the week.

  5. Oh, for some reason, I thought Martyn set the character off as from the Antipodes or "not from around here". I am a pushover for Cinderella stories so I loved this one but you are right about not getting to the fancy dress ball. A severe disappointment.

    1. Good point about the name - it is very 'other', we need a New Zealander to tell us whether it would sound outlandish there...
      Glad you agree about the fancy dress ball.

  6. Replies
    1. ... it's not going to be the book to convince you about Marsh...


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