Craig Revel Horwood creates an intimate and unusual production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical about a faded movie star.
Based on Billy Wilder’s 1950 film noir, Lloyd Webber’s 1993 musical version of Sunset Boulevard follows the same story, in which Joe Gillis, a young, out-of-work screenwriter, becomes fatally entwined in the life of a 50-something former Hollywood star of the silent screen, Norma Desmond. The latter, wallowing in self-delusions of Blanche Du Bois proportions, is desperate to make a return to the screen and commands the young screenwriter to revise a script she has written for a new film in which she intends to star. In return, she offers him the luxuries of a life he has been unable to attain through his work so far – with strings attached.
Revel Horwood’s production, originally staged at the Watermill theatre, Newbury, follows that venue’s trend of using actor-musicians to both play Lloyd Webber’s score and act the parts in the musical. This unusual style has the benefit of integrating the music fully with the action, to the point that musical instruments are sometimes used as props and at other points seem to convey the emotion or personality of the character that plays them. There is studio boss Sheldrake, as bulky and domineering as his double bass, and partygoer Artie with his saxophone. Both Ben Goddard’s Joe and his love interest Betty (Laura Pitt-Pulford) – an aspiring producer who encourages Joe not to sell out – play the flute when they are not singing and flit between the two skills easily.
The only actor who does not play an instrument is Kathryn Evans’s Norma – something which only emphasises her alienation from the rest of the characters – who inhabits a world that has left her behind. A victim of the advent of talkies, Norma has holed herself up in her grandiose mansion where she can continue to believe her star burns as bright as it ever did. Evans imbues the character with a melodramatic, almost sinister air as she entices Joe into her lair, as well as a searing vulnerability when the extent of Norma’s inner pain becomes clear. Her showstopping number, As If We Never Said Goodbye, is sung with heartwrenching passion, showing exactly how much Norma yearns to be under the studio lights once more.
Though directed by choreographer Revel Horwood, there are few staged dances in the show bar a drunken tango between Norma and Joe. But the whole production has a certain fluidity; the characters are constantly moving around the stage, carrying their instruments with them. It also, at times, has a haunting quality. When Norma moves silently through the young people’s New Year’s Eve party, it is as though the ghost of the star she once was is haunting the new Hollywood.
Designer Diego Pitarch’s set and costumes conjure the era, when smoky bars and hedonism clashed with old-school glamour and respect. He also makes use of film itself, to recreate the car chase that delivers Joe to Norma’s front door on Sunset Boulevard.
In the poignant finale, as Joe makes his choice between remaining a kept man and following his ideals and his heart, Norma appears on the balcony of that house. A faded lowlight amid the overblown trappings of a life she once commanded, she is still searching for the spotlight that will illuminate her face once more.