Music: Andrew Lloyd Webber
Book & lyrics: Don Black and Christopher Hampton
Director: Nikolai foster
Reviewer: Sophie Huggins
Lights, camera action: the spotlight falls on 10086 Sunset Boulevard where a forgotten silent movie star reminisces about her glowing glory days. Based on the 1950 Billy Wilder film, this glamorous Hollywood musical first opened in 1993 and still being in production 25 years on says something about the irresistible pull to LA life and the wondrous show that is showbiz.
Festering in her cavernous Hollywood mansion sits Norma Desmond, played by Ria Jones, a once acclaimed silent film actress who, due to still living a luxuriously lavish style and having a hungry ego regularly fed by butler Max (Adam Pearce), can’t seem to accept that times have changed. After the young, ambitious scriptwriter Joe Gillis (Dougie Carter) finds himself driven down her path (quite literally), the two form a bond over the industry and he agrees to help her with a new silent script she is developing. Their relationship grows into an unlikely and slightly uncomfortable romance and as her desperation to hit the big screen again grows, Norma’s grasp on Joe becomes tighter and her want, her need, to be loved ever clearer. She is a fragile woman and this fragility makes her dangerous; a black widow lurking in the shadows, slowly tightening her silvery threads around her prey. With Joe helping another woman with her script – Betty Schaefer, played by Molly Lynch, Joe becomes trapped and it can only end in tragedy.
The music accompanying this epic narrative is simply sensational; a cinematic glow filling the auditorium with equal joy and sadness; an effervescent but also essential communicator to its audience. One of the aspects of this production that makes it extraordinary is the impressively detailed and elegantly designed set by Colin Richmond. From entwining staircases and intimate spooky candles to huge studio panels and spinning streamlined cars, the set feels both industrial and modern to gothic and haunted; indicative of the struggle between old and new in Norma’s world. There are busy, vibrant and effortless scene transitions as the interchangeable set starts to develop its own identity. Richmond’s level of detail is thoroughly impressive as the stage is a fantastic feast for the eyes. The lights, designed by Ben Cracknell are brilliant from cool eerie shadows to dazzling showbiz bulbs; a clever storyteller and indicator of reality and delusion. There are also many brilliant projections that act in harmony with the set and the lights that are impressively designed by Douglas O’Connell.
This fantastic cast really brings this huge story to life and the full ensemble scenes are certainly where the musical shines. Ria Jones as Norma is brilliant, portraying an image of sass, vivaciousness and glamour delicately held up by a rotting dream. Particularly in the second half, Jones commands the stage, has excellent comic timing and remains very connected to her audience. Molly Lynch as Betty Schaefer is also fantastic, with a rich singing voice and always commits to each second with a zing. Carter as Gillis provides a perfect narrator for the audience to invest in and it is clear that the truth is at the forefront of his songs, something some actors can worryingly deem unimportant in musical theatre.
Upon reaching its narrative climax, it does feel as though the stakes need to be slightly higher for the tragic event to feel earned and thus a higher sense of investment from the audience as there would be an impending urgency. Having said that, Sunset Boulevard is a surprising musical, operatic in nature and seeping with romance. It is a cinematic dream, transporting its audience to a different era; a soft faded sepia photograph eternally etched with 1940s Hollywood. Its continued run as a musical proves its relevance as especially in the world today “everyone needs new ways to dream” and that is why its spotlight hasn’t faded just yet.
Runs until 27 January 2018 | Image: Manuel Harlan