Sunset Boulevard review – Hollywood musical is milder than Wilder

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Andrew Lloyd Webber’s version of the 1950 film is smartly staged by Leicester’s Curve, starring Ria Jones and Danny Mac

When screenwriter Joe Gillis swerves into the driveway of 10086 Sunset Boulevard, he discovers a forgotten mansion with a ghost of a tennis court and an empty pool “where Clara Bow and Fatty Arbuckle must have swum 10,000 midnights ago”. In Billy Wilder’s 1950 film, the house itself is compared to Dickens’s Miss Havisham rather than its once illustrious inhabitant, Norma Desmond, the silent screen queen jilted by an industry in thrall to the talkies. The residence, which ensnares Gillis as he is employed as script doctor for Desmond’s comeback, is both museum and mausoleum for her stardom. It is key to representing how the sun has set on her career.

The 1993 London production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical based on the film had an elaborately atmospheric mansion design by John Napier. But this concert version, filmed at Leicester’s Curve just before Christmas, unfolds on a spartan circular stage without so much as a gilded divan. Using video projections to evoke the Los Angeles locations, Nikolai Foster’s production instead promotes Curve’s own building to star status: scenes take place backstage, in the balcony, around a 16-piece orchestra, up in the rigs of the fly tower and even underneath the raked seating.

The effect of a sound stage ... Jones and Danny Mac as Joe Gillis.
The effect of a sound stage ... Jones and Danny Mac as Joe Gillis. Photograph: Marc Brenner

This venue, completed in 2008, can’t rival old Hollywood for glamour and never manages to evoke the lost world of picture palaces, but some of its more anonymous areas, with accompanying bits of tech and tripod floor lamps, give the effect of a sound stage. If we lose the sense of the mansion’s stultifying atmosphere, the approach offers an imaginative alternative to all the static streamed theatre productions we’ve seen since the pandemic struck. It’s a dynamic presentation of a production whose run was cancelled in early December by the region’s tier 3 restrictions.

With its motifs of jazz for Gillis and tango for Desmond, Lloyd Webber’s score nods to the film’s Oscar-winning original by Franz Waxman, and captures the pell-mell buzz of the movie industry and feverish excitement of bit players looking to make it big. His lush, romantic melodies convey Desmond’s melancholic fantasies and that mix of nostalgia and hope particular to its New Year’s Eve setting, yet the musical never captures the sheer deadpan cynicism of the film. That’s not just down to the score. Wilder’s film noir casts a long shadow and Christopher Hampton and Don Black’s lyrics can’t match the hard-boiled bitterness of William Holden’s voiceover narration in the original or its quickfire dialogue (an exception comes in the reprise of the song Every Movie’s a Circus: “They shot my screenplay … they shot the thing dead”).

Sunset Boulevard cast number
Tailor-made makeover ... Sunset Boulevard. Photograph: Marc Brenner

“I believe in self-denial,” sings Danny Mac as Gillis in Let’s Have Lunch, the line both a sardonic take on his cash-strapped status and an acknowledgement of his sense of unfulfillment. But the musical keeps a distance from the movie’s more twisted moments – such as Gillis’s nightmare vision of himself as a chimp dancing for pennies – and it is only when he gives Hollywood hopeful Betty Schaefer a tour of his palazzo prison that you sense the bile rising in Mac’s Gillis. Fans of his One Night Only tango on Strictly in 2016 will wish he was given more moves. The musical jettisons the queasier aspects of Gillis’s relationship with Schaefer, excellently played here by Molly Lynch, and you feel the impossibility of the pair’s future together keenly.

As Desmond, Ria Jones – who originated the role at the Sydmonton festival in 1991 – is more eccentric than abrasive, her warmth for Gillis seemingly purer than that of Gloria Swanson’s Desmond (all steely glare and clenched teeth) in Wilder’s movie. The song New Ways to Dream has the bonus of showing us this Desmond in close-up, with Jones’s hands and eyes alike flickering with silent-screen magic.

Foster tells the story with split screens, freewheeling shots and straight-to-camera addresses from Mac and Jones, while Douglas O’Connell’s video design overlays the action on stage with street scenes and, less successfully, sections of script and a blizzard of screenwriting buzzwords. Lee Proud deftly choreographs companion routines for Gillis’s high-class makeover (featuring a chorus of waistcoated tailors with tape measures) and Desmond’s desperate preparations for her comeback (with a cameo for her feted astrologist).

The performance that stands out, and manages to capture both the musical’s romanticism and the movie’s darkness, is Adam Pearce as Max Von Mayerling, Desmond’s fiercely protective servant and former husband. Pearce’s rumbling baritone reaches an achingly devotional high note as he insists she is still the greatest star of all, even though he is the only one writing her fan letters.


Chris Wiegand

The GuardianTramp

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