Book and Lyrics: Don Black and Christopher Hamilton (based on the Billy Wilder film)
Music: Andrew Lloyd Webber
Director: Andrew Wright
Reviewer: Joan Phillips
You certainly get a full dose of 1950s Hollywood glamour this week at Bristol Hippodrome. This year’s BLOC Production is Sunset Boulevard, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical based on the celebrated Billy Wilder film noir classic.
Sunset Boulevard tells the tragic story of when down-at-heel, screen-writing hopeful Joe Gillis accidentally crosses the path of the great former screen goddess, Norma Desmond. Both are desperate people running out of time in glaringly contrasting situations. Joe is still pushing on doors waiting for his break in Hollywood; pursued by loan sharks, he is running out of hope and money. Norma Desmond, the former screen goddess living in palatial isolation, is looking for her chance to return to the screen before her beauty fades and her 30 million fans forget her.
Originally written in 1950 by Wilder as a black satire of the Hollywood star system, Desmond’s delusions and terror of obscurity ultimately descend into madness and murder. Along the way the script gives us some of the greatest moments on screen, kept here in Lloyd Webber’s enthralling musical stage version. “I am big, it’s the pictures that got small”, Desmond says to Gillis in the middle of the opulent Hollywood set. The legend of this faded screen goddess is kept alive in the great Sunset Boulevard mansion by giant hanging pictures of the youthful star, a constant reminder of the delusions and self-obsessions that drive this story to its explosive conclusion.
Maureen Wycherley delivers a great powerful performance as Desmond. Her faithful servant Max, played by Dylan Cheasley, is chillingly compelling. Mike Griffiths plays the youthful Joe, enjoying some great duets with Jane Williams playing Betty Schaeffer, and of course with Wycherley’s Desmond. An enormous cast of over 30 takes the bow at the end, providing support throughout including a particularly funny choreographed scene of over ten tailors for Gillis’ fitting. BLOC certainly has fun with the period costumes; the extras in the Hollywood shoots are lusciously dressed. Of course, Desmond’s entrances are always accompanied with an ever-more dramatic change of costume. These have to be magnificent and they do not disappoint.
BLOC are an amateur production company, so it may seem a little harsh to criticise technical aspects when playing in such a large performance venue, but the balance of sound between orchestra and stage is quite a problem in the first half on press night. The lyrics are barely discernible in the crowd numbers, clarity is a little better with the duets. The second half improves dramatically, but it certainly affects enjoyment levels for half the evening which is disappointing.
Andrew Wright has to be tight with his choreography and direction to manage such a large cast. With such large numbers of people on set there isn’t room to do justice to the size of staircase for the full impact in that final famous scene. But Wilder’s original lines mean the moment still lingers in the memory. Cameras flashing, photographers ready, “All right Mr De Mille, I’m ready for my close-up” is there in all its haunting, gothic tragedy. A pure Hollywood classic.
Runs until Saturday 26 September 2015.