The Jamie Lloyd Company likes to do things differently and this radical revival of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s classic musical Sunset Boulevard is no exception. Over the summer we caught their production of The Effect at the National Theatre and a few years ago we saw their previous collaboration with Lloyd Webber, a revival of Evita at the Open Air Theatre – in both cases we were impressed with how daring and unusual the staging was, with minimalist sets and clever use of lighting and sound. Sunset Boulevard takes these production elements to another level with some impressive live visual elements courtesy of a huge angled video screen looming over the stalls of the Savoy Theatre.
Of course, many will have come to see the show’s star, former Pussycat Doll Nicole Scherzinger. We should say right from the off that she’s an absolute powerhouse performer, delivering an incredible vocal for early number ‘With One Look’ which almost brings the house down about 20 minutes into the show. While the standout moments belong to her, there are numerous talented singers in the cast and the choral moments sound great too – musically this production is excellent, with a couple of songs receiving fully-deserved mid-show standing ovations.
So we have a visually striking production, excellent music and a genuine star performance – what’s not to love? Well, for all its incredible set-pieces – and there are many – Sunset Boulevard never really gels as a whole. At times it feels like there’s a bit of a disconnect between what we’re watching and the story they’re telling.
There are several nuanced and quite complicated relationships here: between Scherzinger’s Norma Desmond and audacious young writer Joe Gillis (Tom Francis, who is excellent); the unwavering devotion of Norma’s butler Max (David Thaxton); the affair that emerges between Joe and fellow writer Betty Schaefer (Grace Hodgett Young). There’s a lot happening – often too much and it’s too over-the-top, sometimes to the point of being comedic when it’s not meant to be. As a result we struggled to really buy into and invest in these relationships, so their various twists and turns didn’t affect us emotionally.
As much as we loved all the visual elements, it’s also not quite clear what they’re adding to proceedings. There’s a clever sequence at the start of act two which sees the musical’s title song being performed to camera, initially backstage before taking us out on to The Strand, complete with Routemaster buses and baffled tourists in the background, before re-entering the Savoy Theatre, through the bar before dramatically appearing in the auditorium. It’s impressive, it’s perfectly enjoyable, it elicits a cheer from the audience – but does it add anything meaningful? Not really.
We don’t want to be overly critical, however – this is still an impressive production and an enjoyable way to spend two-and-a-half hours. Sunset Boulevard looks like nothing we’ve seen before, with an almost filmic quality – it starts with a title sequence, ends with credits rolling, and much of the action in-between either plays out on, or is augmented by, the large video screen suspended above the stage. With the monochrome aesthetic of the costumes and props it almost feels as though we’re seeing a film noire being created live on stage. It looks a treat, it sounds great and there are some impressive performances, but we didn’t feel as though we bought into the story or characters enough to award it a perfect score.
GAY TIMES gives Sunset Boulevard – 4/5
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