A CurtainUp London Review
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!
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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