DramaMusicalReviewSouth West

Sunset Boulevard – Bristol Hippodrome

Book & Lyrics: Don Black & Christopher Hampton

Music: Andrew Lloyd Webber

Director: Nikolai Foster

Reviewer: Holly Spanner

Even though the original Broadway production scooped seven of the 11 nominated Tony Awards, Sunset Boulevard somehow always seems underrated, overshadowed by other musicals. Given the scale and grandeur of this musical, it is fully deserving of attention in its own right.

Before Patti LuPone and before Glenn Close took on the iconic role, Ria Jones was at the Sydmonton Festival in 1991, introducing a private audience to Norma Desmond. 26 years later, and after stepping on for Close during the recent London run of the production, she is finally headlining as the eccentric star of Hollywood’s silent era. A giant among the silent screen actors, like others at the time, Norma was left in an unfamiliar landscape as the talkies catapulted new stars into the limelight, leaving her with a lonely, unfulfilled existence, desperately clinging to her fantasy world. Jones captivates and commands attention whenever on stage. She embodies all the nuances and gestures of a silent screen actress; deliciously over-the-top and extravagant. But underneath the wide-eyed glamour and outwards portrayal of confidence, when reality intervenes, is a woman who is deeply insecure and bitter. Her final scene is heartbreaking, as fragments of memory of time spent with Joe play themselves out, while her devoted Butler, Max Von Meyerling, looks on in pity.

Adam Pearce as Max is a fascinating character. Fairly understated and unassuming in the first act, he is Madame’s biggest fan. Shielding her from the harsh reality of the fast-paced movie industry, he perpetuates the illusion that Madame is still in demand and adored by fans, describing himself as the “Keeper of the Flame”. Pearce’s distinctive bass-baritone voice proves him to be the perfect casting. He is fiercely protective, and yet together they are the perfect example of codependence; he needs her, just as much as she needs him. 

Dougie Carter as the debted and struggling screenwriter Joe Gillis is fantastic, his anger and bitterness abundant during the title track. A victim of emotional blackmail, he finds himself trapped by the grandiose delusions of Norma, burdened with frustration as her obsession with him grows. Like Max, pity overwhelms him and his sense of duty returns during the New Year celebrations and again agrees to work on her ill-fated script.

The set (Colin Richmond) is incredibly luxurious. Norma’s house on Sunset is smoky and dark, oozing with a vintage, muted glamour. A black marble staircase flanked by burned-out candles descends upon the stage; the sultry atmosphere with exquisite furniture and grand décor externalizing Norma’s vision of how a star should live. Large sliding studio doors neatly transform the set to a backstage film set. This, together with the rear of the stage, are used to full effect, doubling up as a backdrop for projections. It lends itself well to the film noir genre of old Hollywood, which is woven not only through the narrative, but likely as inspiration for the design.

The use of projections is subtle as it is impressive. There are no white walls laying bare waiting for their moment, just a perfect harmony between texture and the digital (Douglas O’Connell), the result being a glorious cinematic feel.

In true Lloyd Webber style, Sunset Boulevard is a very seductive and lavish production finished to an exceptionally high standard. A tragic love story with dark tones and an almost gothic vibe, it is haunting and extremely compelling, certainly one to catch this year.

Runs until 13 January 2018 | Image: Manuel Harlan

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The Southwest team is under the editorship of John McRoberts. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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