Sunset Boulevard, London Coliseum ★★★★


Reviewed for Musical Theatre Review:

The golden age of Hollywood, when silent pictures gave way to ‘talkies’, has been a fertile ground for storytelling in the past. Singin’ in the Rain gave us a comedic take on the screen starlet who could not survive in the world of sound, but it was Billy Wilder’s 1950 dark tragicomedy Sunset Boulevard that set the template for the wearier, more cynical takes on Hollywood that have proliferated since.

Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 1990s adaptation (with book and lyrics by Don Black and Christopher Hampton) takes the central character of Norma Desmond and, as with Eva Peron in Evita, crafts an exquisite musical character around a woman who could and should be regarded as something of a grotesque. But whereas Evita is as much about the rise to power as it is the fall, in Sunset Norma Desmond has already fallen and fallen, and is the only person believing she will ever rise.

After years of imbuing musicals with rock embellishments and synthesizers, Sunset saw Lloyd Webber stretching for a more orchestral sound – and in this revival, the orchestra of the English National Opera brings the score to life once more. Brought out of the pit and given pride of place on stage, the music – most notably the leitmotif evoking the spirit of Hollywood, with strings rising and falling like Pacific waves – has never sounded better.

This production has been described as ‘semi-staged’ by the producers, but that is a little unfair. The implication is a concert with a small amount of choreography, but what we actually get is an admittedly static set of gantries and staircases, placing us backstage among the Paramount backlot. The grand sweeping staircase of John Napier’s designs for the original West End run may be gone, but here we are in Desmond’s head, a world where she still lives in the studio environment, even though she lives as a washed-up recluse.

It’s not a perfect makeover: designer James Noone takes the opportunity of the vacated orchestra pit to turn it into the famed swimming pool, but the representation of Joe’s floating corpse that opens the movie is a somewhat laughable mannequin, arranged as if he’s just tripped off a pedestal at M&S and hung precariously over proceedings throughout. But elsewhere, Lonny Price’s staging is one which works.

And of course, nobody in the audience is here to see the staircase. The main attraction is, of course, Glenn Close, who won a Tony Award for her portrayal of Norma Desmond on Broadway – a casting decision which famously caused ructions between Lloyd Webber and Patti LuPone, who had originated the role in London.

Unlike Desmond, Close’s star remains in the ascendant (even though she is now two decades older than Gloria Swanson was when she played the washed-up Norma) and as such, her first entrance elicits wild reactions from the audience before she even utters a line, let alone begins to sing.

Unfortunately, her first solo number, ‘Surrender’, does not allow Close to play to her strengths. She audibly struggles with the gentle lullaby – and indeed, throughout her weakest performances are the numbers that require a lyrical quietness. In contrast, as soon as she hits the climactic belt of ‘With One Look’ it is as if a timidity and insecurity shared with Desmond falls away, replaced with a woman who can, and does, excel.

And as expected, Close’s ability as an actress helps flesh out a character that is so easy to mischaracterise as a deluded demon. In her hands, Norma is still a monster, manipulative and controlling all around her – but the tragedy of her character elicits true sympathy from the audience.

As Joe, the impoverished scriptwriter who hides out from the bailiffs in her mansion and becomes her collaborator on her dreadful self-penned script, and then her kept man, Michael Xavier is suitably louche as needed – but with enough of a charming twinkle to ensure that his burgeoning romance with Siobhan Dillon’s script reader-turned-wannabe writer Betty remains both believable and yearned for.

Musically, Xavier and Dillon are never less than utterly dependable, and in a show which wants to emphasise the score’s musical majesty, having two such great performances in key roles goes a long way to ensuring this production’s quality.

With such an emphasis on the orchestrations (by David Cullen with Lloyd Webber) under the watchful gaze of conductor Michael Reed, it becomes easier to recognise strains of other Lloyd Webber works within the score – listen closely and ghosts of melodies from Evita and Tell Me On Aa Sunday resurface, along with strains from a tune in The Beautiful Game that would eventually emerge fully formed as the title song in Love Never Dies. That’s not to detract in any way from the general lusciousness of the score, which is also punctuated by some great uptempo ensemble dance routines choreographed by Stephen Mear.

As events tumble towards the inevitability of the tragic events signalled by the floating corpse that opens the story, Close pulls out all the stops in portraying the increasingly paranoid Norma. Her ‘As If We Never Said Goodbye’ is not the strongest you’ll ever see or hear, but when the onstage ensemble applaud her and are joined by an appreciative audience, it’d be a hard heart that didn’t join in.

Sunset Boulevard continues until May 7.