Review by Daz Gale
Revivals of Andrew Lloyd Webber shows are usually a safe bet. No matter how the original was received, if you have seen that show before or know even the slightest thing about it, you should know exactly what to expect. Right? So imagine my surprise when it was announced Jamie Lloyd was directing a new production of Sunset Boulevard with Nicole Scherzinger as Norma Desmond. A few eyebrows may have been raised as we all realised this production would demand you forget everything you know about this show. With that in mind, I don’t know why I’m frightened…
If you are unfamiliar with the story of Sunset Boulevard, it sees former silent movie star Norma Desmond struggle to come to terms with her obscurity. When she meets struggling screenwriter Joe Gillis, she enlists his help to stage her big comeback. But with some players not being honest and others suffering from delusional tendencies, you are warned this isn’t going to work out for everyone involved from the offset. Based on the 1950 film, the musical adaptation opened in the West End in 1993 and has been revived multiple times with Glenn Close, Elaine Paige and Patti LuPone among the actresses to have played the iconic role in the decades since.
Confession time – while I may not always love certain Andrew Lloyd Webber shows, Sunset Boulevard has always been my favourite. I believe it to be his most consistent score and have seen a few different productions of it over the last 10 years (yes, I was a late starter). With shows like this, comparing it to previous productions and how you would expect the show to be staged feels inevitable. Both a blessing and a curse and something I believe is going to evoke strong reactions of varying kinds amongst its theatregoers.
A great story to begin with, Don Black and Christopher Hampton’s book has always been exceptional, with their lyrics elevating Andrew Lloyd Webber’s music in a match made in musical heaven. Carefully balancing conflicting themes with humour that can mask the serious and dangerous nature of elements of the story, they created an adaptation full of emotion. In this production, a lot of the humour has been stripped away, particularly, in the first half of act one – don’t expect to see a monkey where you usually would in this show (though that’s not to say one doesn’t make an appearance somewhere) and two of the lighter numbers in the show have been cut from this production altogether. Generally a much darker show both figuratively and literally, humour is finally allowed to trickle through in small doses once the tone has been set.
I have no doubt that Jamie Lloyd’s direction here is going to prove incredibly divisive. Having caught a preview performance before returning to review the show, I witnessed the polarising and extreme views people have on this particular production and fully expect some people to completely disagree with my opinion of the show. So what side of the fence do I fall here? The star rating may have given it away – I couldn’t have loved it more if I tried.
Yes, this is a very different production of Sunset Boulevard than we have seen before but I believe that’s a good thing. We have seen the tried and tested Sunset numerous times over the decades. To be able to reinvent a show like this is admirable, and its execution (in my opinion) is exceptional. Simultaneously managing to retain the distinctive moments that make Sunset Boulevard what it is while changing the way the story is told to such an extent that it feels like a brand-new show, I found Jamie Lloyd’s direction to be the most exciting thing I have seen in the theatre in years. Completely bold in his choices, it is very clear with this production that this is a director at the top of his game – one that isn’t afraid to take risks, knowing full well some theatre enthusiasts will call it sacrilegious.
With Jamie Lloyd’s distinctive style, don’t expect a huge set for this production of Sunset Boulevard. Norma’s grand house doesn’t make an appearance, nor does the iconic staircase she is known for. Don’t expect lavish costumes either. Instead, the cast wear dark clothes and use not much more than chairs for props on stage. If that fills you with dread, you may be surprised to learn it works fantastically. Norma’s entrance and culminating speech doesn’t lose any of the impact for not having the set piece you would usually expect. Instead, you are left with a shocking and dynamic climax that ends up being thought-provoking but ultimately satisfying.
Fabian Aloise’s choreography matches the excitement of the direction with some very different but always visually stimulating choices, creating some very different numbers with a more contemporary feel to them. These are particularly apparent on the larger ensemble numbers such as ‘Let’s Do Lunch’, ‘This Time Next Year’, and a particular highlight in terms of movement with an inspired ‘Every Movie’s A Circus’ which are outstanding to watch. While it is predominantly muted and restrained, the exquisite nature of Jack Knowles’ lighting design ensures the moments the stage is illuminated suddenly (such as the iconic spotlight in ‘As If We Never Said Goodbye’) are done in such a way that maximises impact and always looks glorious.
I now need to talk about something I have never had to mention in a review before – Cinematography. This paragraph will contain some serious spoilers, so skip to the next one if you don’t want to know.
The use of video plays a huge part in this production of Sunset Boulevard. From the moment a screen drops minutes into the show to innovatively play opening credits to a gorgeous sequence involving Nicole Scherzinger blended with a younger actress as Norma, and a beautifully perfect cut to Ahmed Hamad in an emotional moment, I have never seen video design like this in my life, and it blew me away every single time. With video design and cinematography from Nathan Amzi and Joe Ransom, they have created something so brave, so unique, so phenomenal, they have taken the bar for something like this and raised it to an impossible level I struggle to think anyone will ever meet. The greatest achievement of this is the seemingly implausible beginning of act two which sees Tom Francis sing the majority of the title number ‘Sunset Boulevard’ outside of the theatre (yes, you read that right) while his actions are broadcast completely live (and it is live… every performance) to a gobsmacked audience. While you may not love every element of this production personally, you can’t fault the precision and timing that went into pulling it off. A true feat of theatre and a sequence that will stay with me as long as I live. It takes a lot to get a mid-show standing ovation on a press night and this genius feat of theatricality effortlessly managed it.
Nicole Scherzinger may not have seemed like the most obvious choice to play Norma Desmond, but she is an absolute revelation in the role. Completely committing to the role, she gives a performance that balances frantic and withdrawn, perfectly encapsulating the very essence of Norma to give a performance that surprises at every turn. A truly gifted performer, Nicole’s acting and characterisation are only surpassed by her vocals which at their best are otherworldly. In ‘With One Look’ and ‘As If We Never Said Goodbye’ complete with potentially the longest note I’ve ever heard held in a show, she delivers these iconic classics in such a sensational way that is befitting to their legacy. Her performance veers from playful to dangerous, particularly in Nicole’s exaggerated looks to the camera which may be tongue in cheek but doesn’t detract from the story. In a performance so effortless, she is up there with the very best Norma Desmonds, at times it really does feel like she is the greatest star of all. Don’t be surprised if she wins awards for this performance. To be frank, I’d be surprised if she doesn’t.
Interestingly, the show is littered with a handful of Pussycat Dolls references. You may dismiss that as a handful of easy target sight gags, or you could look at it as a way to blur the lines between Nicole and Norma and draw comparisons between Nicole’s own career (admittedly she’s not getting number ones anymore) and that of Norma. Perhaps I’m overthinking but I couldn’t help but think the consequences of making the Pussycat Dolls canonical in the world of Sunset Boulevard was a brilliantly inventive way to create a meta story, almost like an Andrew Lloyd Webber Inception. Whether you agree with that or not, if you ever wanted to watch Norma Desmond dance to ‘Jai Ho’ (and who doesn’t?) this production is the one for you.
Tom Francis is a marvel as Joe Gillis, playing him far more disillusioned and disenfranchised than you may expect from the character. This creates a more urgent nature for the character in which Tom thrives. In a performance that at times can be understated, his serious nature is an inspired character choice and one that Tom delivers with ease. If Tom Francis impresses on stage, he impresses even more off stage with his timing in the aforementioned complicated title number requiring him to tour the entire theatre and its surroundings outside, all the while singing flawlessly and never missing a beat. The practicality of this performance shouldn’t be understated and Tom deserves his credit for executing it so meticulously.
David Thaxton portrays Max von Mayerling with such a sinister quality, that it is genuinely creepy at times. His constant presence around Joe and Norma’s relationship is given an added dimension thanks to the use of video, with a close-up on David’s face regularly seen, looming over them and feeling threatening. A wonderful performance and a testament to David’s talents as a character actor, he also gets moments to shine with a stunning vocal. As Betty Schaefer, Grace Hodgett-Young delights with the perfect mix of sweet innocence and confidence in her convictions, creating more than a match for the other alpha female who dominates the show. The cast are completed by hard-workingng but consistently captivating ensemble, all of whom ensure the quality on that stage is nothing short of perfection and are all stars in their own right.
To call this production of Sunset Boulevard daring would be an understatement. Completely bold and brave, it demands that you form an opinion on the show one way or another – ambivalence is not an option. I am sure some will have a completely conflicting opinion to my own, and that is what theatre should be about. This was a huge risk and, in my opinion, it has been pulled off to perfection. Purists for the show may be resistant to the change and that’s fine but I believe theatre should never rest on its laurels and always strive to create something different. While tried and tested shows are a safe bet and comfortable, sometimes you want to be uncomfortable – and that is why I love this production immeasurably.
Jamie Lloyd’s direction is ingenious, making this feel like a completely different show altogether while still retaining the distinctive Sunset Boulevard elements. The cinematography and video design create a mix between theatre and cinema in a way that draws obvious comparisons to Norma Desmond and her time on the big screen. The whole thing is quite simply phenomenal. The production, the direction, I can’t fault a single element of the show, even to the extent of the bits they have changed or cut completely. As for the casting, Nicole Scherzinger is a revelation. It feels like she was born to play Norma Desmond and is very clearly at her career best here, with the rest of the cast equally exceptional. While it’s been a great year for musicals, this may well be the greatest show of all. In this inspired production, Jamie Lloyd really has taught the world new ways to dream.
Sunset Boulevard plays at the Savoy Theatre until 6th January 2024. Tickets available here
Photos by Marc Brenner