Theatre

Sunset Boulevard @ Comedy Theatre, London



cast list
Kathryn Evans, Ben Goddard, Laura Pitt-Pulford, Dave Willetts, Tomm Coles, Craig Pinder, Jessica Martin, Elisa Boyd, Alexander Evans, Kate Feldscreiber, Sam Kenyon, Nick Lashbrook, Tarek Merchant, Helen Power

directed by
Craig Revel Horwood
“I am big; it’s the pictures that got small!” So said Norma Desmond in Billy Wilder’s classic Sunset Boulevard, but here it’s Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 1993 musical version that has been reduced.

This pared down staging is a transfer from Newbury’s Watermill Theatre, a small, regional venue that has made a name for itself staging musicals where (initially as a result of financial constraints) the cast double as musicians, both playing instruments and performing.

The Watermill’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd was a huge hit, transferring first to the West End and then to Broadway, even though the distinctive approach to the material proved somewhat divisive.


Here this device both gives a new twist to this somewhat overblown musical and creates some rather perplexing moments. It just looks silly when, in an early scene, a big movie producer has to say his lines while lugging around a double bass. And later, when a desperate Norma has cut her wrists to lure Joe back to her, the moment is somewhat undercut by a cast member creeping about behind her with a pair of cymbals. It’s also difficult not to giggle when Ben Goddard’s tormented Joe Gillis sits at Norma’s organ and bashes at the keys in a dramatic fashion.

There is however something to be said for stripping away the fat, the big sets and the big names (both Patti LuPone and Glenn Close played Norma during the musical’s original run) and performing this as a more intimate piece. It allows the director, Craig Revel Horwood, to focus on the claustrophobia of the relationship between Joe, the hard-up young screenwriter and Norma, the faded silent movie star, pickled in past glories and poring over fan mail all penned by her loyal butler.

In this way Kathryn Evans’ Norma really does get to dominate proceedings, singing from the top of the rather simple spiral staircase that constitutes the set, eyes wide and arms reaching towards all those faces out there in the dark: in the context of the production, she is big sometimes too big, too full on, she rarely allows Norma to be human.

Lack of subtly is a recurring problem; Lloyd-Webber’s work is at times pretty heavy-handed stuff. When Norma lavishes Joe with gifts, with clothes he couldn’t possibly afford and gold cigarette cases, the devil’s pact he’s entering into is conveyed to the audience in sledge hammer fashion via a song called The Lady’s Paying. By overstating things to the nth degree the subtle seediness of the film is severely undermined.

Both Evans and Goddard have fine voices and the latter at least pitches his performance at a more suitable level. The small ensemble cast are also clearly highly skilled, they need to be to pull off so seamlessly this particular method of staging – though the production works best when those playing instruments remain on the side of the stage rather than dancing across it. But, though it works well in places, this Sunset never quite convinces, certainly not as window into a lost Hollywood; however as a re-examination of one of the 1990s big musical hits, it’s worth a look.



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