Comedy Theatre, London
Written by Andrew Lloyd Weber
Directed by Craig Revel Horwood
Kathryn Evans as Norma Desmond. Photo: Tristam Kenton
The Waterman’s Theatre, Newbury have gained a reputation for ingenious small scale revivals of musicals – most notably their production of Sondheim’s ‘Sweeney Todd’ which had a successful run in London before an equally successful transfer to New York several years ago. With their latest revival, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 1993 musical ‘Sunset Boulevard’, this small scale approach is an unqualified artistic success. Not only does this highly imaginative production, directed by choreographer Craig Revel Horwood, create a spellbinding evening in the theatre but also, Lloyd Webber’s score (untrammeled by the huge sets and lush orchestrations of the original production) emerges as the haunting masterpiece that it is.
For the production is performed by a hugely talented ensemble of actor musicians who deftly change roles (and instruments) on stage throughout the performance. From the opening moment, when they are gathered around the body of Joe Gillis in the imaginary swimming pool as detectives and news hounds and they slowly lift their instruments and begin to play the opening melancholy theme, this performing device enthralls the audience. Furthermore, as the band is small and on stage in role – the music underpins the drama seamlessly and the spare orchestrations emphasize the considerable sensuousness of the score and its poignancy and unearthly quality.
For this is a Hollywood ghost story – except that it’s heroine, faded silent star Norma Desmond, is a shade from the past who is still very much alive and aching for a return to the screen and her public, her ‘people in the dark’. Based on Billy Wilder’s classic 1950 movie, Lloyd Webber’s score does bring out the eeriness of the film as well as the cynical bustle of Hollywood, which the movie so successfully satirizes.
Desperate for a comeback to the screen, Norma Desmond engages young hack screenwriter, Joe Gillis (who has stumbled into her crumbling Beverly Hills palazzo on the run from creditors wanting to re-possess his car). As Joe attempts to rewrite Norma’s comeback vehicle – her own inflated version of ‘Salome’ – slowly Norma falls for him and inveigles him into the role of her lover/gigolo. He finds it hard to extricate himself from the situation until tragedy intervenes.
Norma is a very operatic character – and it comes as no surprise that Gloria Swanson who so vividly etched the role in celluloid, initiated a project for a musical (starring herself) in the early 1960’s. Kathryn Evan’s towering performance in this production not only matches the operatic stature of the role but also reveals Norma as a tragic heroine, like a female ‘King Lear’ caught up in her own self image and writhing against retirement. For at least Lear at first willingly gives up his kingdom: Norma’s has been taken from her – by the Talkies. Miss Evans brings out the underlying vulnerability in Norma wonderfully as well as her sense of humour. And vocally she is a standout – bringing out every nuance of feeling to music and lyrics and taking the audience with her in her imaginary triumphant comeback in ‘With Only One Look’ and ‘As if we Never said goodbye’.
Though not as rugged or world weary as William Holden (who played Joe Gillis in the original movie), Ben Goddard is equally magnetic and cynical – which disturbingly contrasts with his baby faced youth. He is well matched by Dave Willets as Max Von Mayerling, Norma’s butler, ex-director ad ex husband, who’s quiet unobtrusiveness around the set somehow makes him all the more present.
Overall this is a remarkable production and proof that small scale revivals of musicals can reveal new and more enduring qualities in the originals.