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Sunset Boulevard

Dreams are not enough to win a war
Out here they're always keeping score
Beneath the tan the battle rages
Smile a rented smile, fill someone's glass
Kiss someone's wife, kiss someone's ass
We do whatever pays the wages.
— Verse from title song "Sunset Boulevard"
Sunset Boulevard
Kathryn Evans as Norma and Ben Goddard as Joe
(Photo: Alastair Muir)
From the tiny Watermill Theatre in Newbury comes this delightful small scale, actor musician production of Sunset Boulevard, Andrew Lloyd Webber's lavish musical about an ageing female movie star and a young scriptwriter. What this production lacks in over the top sets, it more than makes up for in charm.

Don Black and Christopher Hampton have kept closely to Billy Wilder's original screenplay, the story of Norma Desmond, here played by Kathryn Evans, the celebrated silent movie star who now lives a reclusive life in Hollywood's Sunset Boulevard. The script and lyrics are outstandingly good. The music seems strangely familiar, there being several starts to songs which I thought I was about to recognize from Joseph and His Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat but hey, can Lloyd Webber really be guilty of plagiarism if it's one of his own tunes from another show? Derivative they may be but the tunes are good and the show stopping anthem, "Sunset Boulevard" with its message about what Joe Gillis (Ben Goddard) has done to survive in Hollywood after failing to get work is bittersweet and insightful.

Craig Revel Horwood, well known to television viewers as the acerbic dance judge on BBC Television's Strictly Come Dancing has directed this production. What struck me was the wonderful movement, the way the actor musicians crisscross the stage as they play their instruments, adding to the visual excitement so that a crowd scene seems more peopled than it can be using ten of a cast of just 13, and the whole musical is rarely static. This has to be the creative advantage of an inventive choreographer as director. There is wit too in the direction. In the beauty scene before Norma can face the studio boss, her nails are filed with violin bows as we are told "Eternal youth is worth a little sitting."

. I'm not surprised that people rate it as the best of Lloyd Webber's musicals. Joe Gillis' opening number sets the scene in the jazzy "I Guess it was 5am", he says "Let me take you back six months/I was at the bottom of the barrel". Alexander Evans as Sheldrake amazes by playing the double bass, smoking a cigar and talking on the telephone simultaneously. So in one scene we get an impression of the multi-tasking, fast track life that is the movie business in Hollywood. Other tunes use tango and Latin rhythms to good effect with all that exaggerated passion and self importance.

The set is dominated by the enormous back drop, the beautiful face of Gloria Swanson in her youth, a constant reminder of Norma's past. There is a spiral staircase allowing Norma to make dramatic entrances and for her loyal butler and ex-husband, Max von Mayerling (Dave Willetts) to lurk protectively behind. Even the auditorium lamps have been draped with cobwebs to emphasize the effect of the now dilapidated mansion. Video is used to supplement some of the action in the car chase which sees Joe land up at the Desmond mansion. The costumes are lavish and period.

The clarity and beauty of Kathryn Evans' voice is without question as she sings like a diva. In the stylised tango scene with Joe she doesn't miss a sexually provocative opportunity to curl her leg round his as he pulls faces to the audience. When she visits Cecil B DeMille (Craig Pinder) at the studio to promote her film script of Salome, there is poignancy as she isn't recognised by the office girls. Celebrity doesn't endure for Norma Desmond even if Max thinks she is a living legend. Ben Goddard makes a sensational Joe Gillis, playing the flute riff for the title song and when he sings, belting it out to perfection. He reminds me of John Barrowman. I liked too Dave Willets as the ex-husband and devoted Max whose lovely voice I couldn't hear too much of. Joe's later romantic interest, Betty Schaefer (Laura Pitt-Pulford) is making an impressive West End debut.

The darkness of the original film noir is retained with Christopher Hampton and Don Black's wonderful knowing lyrics. This Sunset Boulevard deserves a better climate rather than one where the recession is killing off all except the overtly populist. I'd gladly see it again very soon!

Sunset Boulevard
Book and lyrics by Don Black and Christopher Hampton
Based on the Billy Wilder film
Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber
Directed by Craig Revel Horwood

Starring: Dave Willets, Kathryn Evans, Ben Goddard. With: Elisa Boyd, Tomm Coles, Alexander Evans, Kate Feldschreiber, Sam Kenyon, Nick Lashbrook, Tarek Merchant, Craig Pinder, Laura Pitt-Pulford, Helen Power
Designer: Diego Pitarch
Arrangements and Musical Supervisor: Sarah Travis
Orchestrator: Chris Walker
Lighting: Richard G Jones
Sound: Gary Dixon
Running time: Two hours 35 minutes with one interval
Box Office: 0870 060 6637
Booking to 18th April 2009
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 17th December 2008 performance at The Comedy, Panton Street, London SW1 (Tube: Piccadilly Circus)
Musical Numbers
Act One
  • Overture / I Guess It Was 5am - Joe
  • Let's Have Lunch - Joe, Actors, actress, scriptwriters, Artie, Sheldrake, Betty
  • Every Movie's A Circus - Betty, Joe
  • Car Chase - orchestra
  • At the House on Sunset - Joe
  • Surrender - Norma
  • With One Look - Norma
  • Salome - Norma, Joe
  • Greatest Star of All - Max
  • Every Movie's a Circus (Reprise) - Actors, Actress, Waiters, Artie, Joe, Betty, Barman
  • Girl Meets Boy - Joe, Betty
  • Back at the House on Sunset - Joe, Max
  • New Ways to Dream - Norma, Joe
  • Completion of the Script - Norma, Joe
  • The Lady's Paying - Norma, Manfred, Joe, Ensemble
  • New Year's Eve - Joe, Max
  • Perfect Year - Norma, Joe
  • This Time Next Year - Ensemble, Artie, Betty, Joe, Cecil B. DeMile
  • New Year's Eve (Back at the House on Sunset)- Joe, Norma
Act Two
  • Entr'acte - orchestra
  • Sunset Boulevard - Joe
  • There's Been a Call (Perfect year [Reprise]) - Norma
  • Journey to Paramount - Joe, Norma
  • As If We Never Said Goodbye - Norma
  • Paramount Conversations - Betty, Joe, Norma, Cecil B. DeMille, Sheldrake, Max
  • Surrender (Reprise) - Cecil B. DeMille
  • Girl Meets Boy (Reprise)- Joe, Betty
  • Eternal Youth Is Worth a Little Suffering - Norma, Astrologer, Beauticians
  • Who's Betty Schaefer? - Joe
  • Betty's Office at Paramount - Joe, Betty
  • Too Much in Love to Care - Betty, Joe
  • New Ways to Dream (Reprise)- Max
  • The Phone Call - Norma
  • The Final Scene - Joe, Betty, Norma, Max
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