Sunset Boulevard

Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, book and lyrics by Don Black and Christopher Hampton, based on the Billy Wilder film
The Jamie Lloyd Company; Produced by Ambassador Theatre Group Productions, Michael Harrison for Lloyd Webber Harrison Musicals, Gavin Kalin Productions, Wessex Grove, David Mirvish and Nick Thomas
Savoy Theatre

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Nicole Scherzinger as Norma Desmond Credit: Marc Brenner
Grace Hodgett Young as Betty Schaefer, Nicole Scherzinger as Norma Desmond and Tom Francis as Joe Gillis Credit: Marc Brenner
Nicole Scherzinger as Norma Desmond Credit: Marc Brenner
Nicole Scherzinger as Norma Desmond, Tom Francis as Joe Gillisand David Thaxton as Max Von Mayerling Credit: Marc Brenner
David Thaxton as Max Von Mayerling and company Credit: Marc Brenner

Sunset Boulevard is based on Billy Wilder’s 1950 film about Norma Desmond, a silent era movie star deludedly believing her return to the screen is about to happen.

Jamie Lloyd’s revival reflects that cinematic background, not only in the movie style titles and credits that frame it, but with the extensive use of camerawork and close-ups in a stark, black and white production set on an almost bare stage. Instead of lush scenery, which some punters may expect for West End prices, production values here are fantastic lighting (Jack Knowles), orchestral richness, vibrant dancers (choreographed by Fabian Aloise), powerful images and stunning performance.

In the misty murk of the prologue, Tom Francis’s Joe Gillis seems to emerge from a body bag to recount his story, telling it straight to the audience, but increasingly that contact comes from close-ups on the screen that angles into place as part of Soutra Gilmour’s stark setting, a glance to camera providing instant intimacy, while giant shadows add to the drama and rushing silhouettes of a frantic crowd of Hollywood hopefuls create new locations.

The excellent camerawork actually emphasises that this is live theatre, and there is even an extraordinary sequence when Joe, singing "Sunset Boulevard", roams through the theatre dressing rooms and out on The Strand, perfectly timed to end the number on stage. It also allows for a little tongue-in-cheek light relief in a rather serious evening.

This isn’t a show of sing-along numbers; its music is both rich and dramatically unsettling. Nicole Scherzinger has a great vocal range and is not afraid to make harsh sounds when they fit the drama. She gives a stunning performance: two of her biggest numbers stopped the show with standing ovations on press night. This isn’t a faded star, though her day has passed, but her mental health is crumbling, there is a wildness about her that is unsettling.

Tom Francis, as struggling screenwriter Joe, gives us a man who can’t really handle what he has got into; it is a performance sustained by its directness. This Joe actually finds himself responding to Norma’s advances. As Betty, the other girl he is involved with, Grace Hodgett Young is delightful, especially in a duet with Joe played upstage to the cameras, while her previous boyfriend Artie (Ahmed Hamad) is glimpsed in close-up with a tear rolling down his cheek.

There is something slightly sinister about Max Von Mayerling, Norma’s former husband, now her devoted butler, but he is her protector and David Thaxton is especially moving as he tries to shield her.

With these key performers, the drama is in good hands. There is also a notable contribution from Hannah Yun Chamberlain as a young Norma, dancing a parallel version of how she used to be, or perhaps an image of how Norma still sees herself.

Jamie Lloyd’s handling of his stark production concentrates attention exactly where he wants it. His control is very detailed. For only a few moments does he allow a lamp to provide warm light instead of a white beam, and when there is a sudden splash of colour, it is momentary in a flash of light but dramatically dynamite.

This might not be the Sunset Boulevard you expect, but it is vibrant live theatre.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton

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