Sunset Boulevard, a musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber, Don Black, and Christopher Hampton, revolves around the meeting of Joe Gillis, a struggling screenwriter, and Norma Desmond, a once-famous Hollywood actress who longs to return to set. It is an adaptation of a 1950s film by Billy Wilder for Paramount Pictures. The Leicester-based Curve Theatre’s stream of this musical, recorded safely just before Christmas (with masked camera-operators, who are often visible in the recording, and no audience), reunites the award-winning 2017 touring cast. Directed by Nikolai Foster, designed by Colin Richmond, filmed by Crosscut Media, with musical direction from Chris Mundy, the streamed production is a true delight. It proves to be unceasingly creative and dynamic.
There is no specific set. Instead, the actors make use of the entire space. When Max escorts Joe to his room in Norma’s house, the two actors are up in the rigging (the fly platform). Joe and his love interest, Betty, sing together underneath the audience’s seats. Audience members are not only watching a play: they are also on a tour of the theatre itself. At a time when we greatly miss being in theatres, this proves to be quite emotional.
In the absence of a physical set, scene changes are enacted by overlaying fast-moving projections of cars, buildings and even words onto pacing actors. Projections prove to be key elsewhere. As Norma sings about her past glory we see nostalgic projections of her younger self. In Act Two, when Norma approaches the film set, there is a projection of the Paramount Pictures studio gates opening before her. Theatre and film are intertwined.
Ria Jones gives a commanding performance as Norma Desmond. She was actually the actress who originated this role when the musical was being workshopped in 1991. She lets the audience see the vulnerability within the diva, the neediness and desperation beneath the sparkling outfits and exuberant gestures. Her rendition of ‘Just One Look’ is rousing.
Danny Mac is perfectly cast as idealist-turned-cynic Joe Gillis. He has just the right amount of charisma; he also proves capable, in later scenes, of being more vicious and mocking. Mac’s ironic asides to the audience, in which he looks straight down the main camera lens, are a neat touch, drawing the audience in. He makes them sound very natural and spontaneous. “Oh god’” he exclaims to us, on hearing that Norma wants him to watch her performance in Joan of Arc, “we saw that last week”. He and Molly Lynch (who plays Betty) have excellent chemistry. Lynch has an impressive range and makes Betty particularly endearing in ‘Girl Meets Boy (Reprise)’.
It is noteworthy that every member of the ensemble also excels, whoever you choose to focus on. Every performance is polished. However, the “greatest star of all” in this show is Adam Pearce, who plays Max von Mayerling, Norma’s butler. As he sings of Norma, the “living legend”, his voice is beautifully rich and full of longing, in contrast to his stiff posture. Pearce captures Max’s devotion very effectively. He describes Norma with an expression of total awe and his reprise of Norma’s song (‘New Ways to Dream’) becomes deeply moving.
Variations in tone contribute to making this show so memorable. There is plenty of humour. “You used to be big”, Joe tells Norma. “I am big”, she states, “It’s the pictures that got small”. Later, she insists – with amusing panache – that she is not making a “comeback” but a “return”. Equally, there are some poignant sections. In the play’s final scene, Norma is in the section of the theatre auditorium known as ‘the gods’. As she starts to move down the steps at the side, she casts a huge shadow on the wall. Director Nikolai Foster creates an intensely tragic image: only in her shadow is Norma the great personage she so longs to be.
It is clear that a great deal of thought has gone into this recording and the attention to detail really pays off. The cast and crew have created a memorable and captivating show. It is a must-see for anyone missing being in a theatre or wanting a temporary escape from the monotony of lockdown.
I have watched many streamed shows over the past months and this one has certainly been the most impressive and inspiring offering.
The Curve’s stream of Sunset Boulevard is available at select times until the 17th of January 2021. It must be watched at those times (no pausing or rewinding) and includes an interval.
Tickets are £20 per household and are available here: https://www.curveonline.co.uk/whats-on/shows/sunset-boulevard-in-concert-at-home/.
Image: Gabriella Chaplin.