Director: Nikolai Foster
Music: Andrew Lloyd Webber
Book / Lyrics: Don Black / Christopher Hampton
Reviewer: Helen Tope
Evocative and darkly glamorous, Sunset Boulevard is Andrew Lloyd Webber’s most unlikely hit. A fading beauty, hanging onto former glories; infatuation that sours into obsession and deceit. Sunset Boulevard is a musical set in a minor key, and every black note is played to full effect.
The story of Norma Desmond and Joe Gillis is immortalised in Billy Wilder’s 1950 film. A star of the silent screen, Desmond belongs to an age of excess. As the industry moves into talkies, she becomes a relic of the past. Showbusiness has a short memory, and Desmond is unwanted and forgotten. The story might end there, but a chance encounter with a screenwriter (Gillis) is enough to ignite her passion. Tempered by a desire to return to the soundstage, Norma’s passion for Joe develops into something far darker and deeper than Gillis can handle. He tries to back away, but it is already too late.
The problem of transferring a film onto the stage is how to manage expectation. An iconic film comes with a set of images that imprint themselves, firmly and securely, in our minds. Sunset is Gloria Swanson and William Holden – Hollywood glamour painted in gothic tones.
The trick is not to recreate but to borrow, adapt and alter to fit. Sunset Boulevard, just like the film, works because it does not shy away from the macabre or perverse. Everything in Norma Desmond’s world is a facade, even down to the order of her household. With astute, world-weary lyrics from Don Black and Christopher Hampton, this is a Lloyd Webber musical with attitude. Sunset Boulevard’s conclusion is unflinching. You are watching a woman have a breakdown, right in the glare of the spotlight. You can’t look away.
As Norma Desmond, Ria Jones gives voice to the former legend. With rich tones, breaking and reaching for the big notes, Jones’ characterisation is full-blooded and all too human. Everyone can see Norma heading for disaster, but she powers on, convinced her return will be a triumph.
Playing Joe Gillis, Strictly favourite Danny Mac proves he’s no one-trick-pony, working with a melodic voice that picks out the nuance in the Black / Hampton lyrics. Throwing in a silky tango, Mac teases the audience with a few moves. As Norma’s right-hand-man, Adam Pearce as Max Von Meyerling is astonishing. A gloriously-textured voice that fills the stage, Pearce is impossible to ignore.
The quality of this production seeps into every detail. The celluloid that made Norma Desmond a star is projected onto large screens, giving depth and dimension to what’s happening onstage. As Norma sings of her former life, we see images of the younger actress, flickering and stuttering like a flame. It is a perfect example of how technology can add a richness to the traditions of musical theatre. It doesn’t have to be either / or – Sunset Boulevard does both, and they work in perfect sync.
There is little to find fault with here. The musical builds layers of sound and image to create a universe that’s as real and vibrant as the one that lives in Norma’s mind. We too become haunted by the call of the spotlight. The promise of what could be is so alluring, you would almost have to be mad not to chase it. Sunset Boulevard leaves us with devastation, left, right and centre, as the credits roll. Fame comes at a price, but whether that price is too high, is a question never fully resolved.
Runs until Saturday 17 March | Image: Manuel Harlan