Sunset Boulevard Pre-Opening Night Review: Norma, Nudity, and a very “Un-London” reaction

Sunset Boulevard © Richard Hubert Smith

I bought tickets to Sunset Boulevard with a sense of both excitement and dread: How could this possibly live up to the hype? Could Glenn Close still sing? Having had the privilege to see Glenn in 2002 at the National Theatre in A Streetcar Named Desire, and having Sunset Boulevard as one of my favourite scores, I was worried I might just be expecting, well, too much?

*Warning – contains plot spoilers*

The ENO have brought a show known for the lavishness of the famous staircase in the original West End & Broadway productions to the Coliseum and pared it down dramatically. Two utilitarian scaffold stairways intertwine around the on-stage orchestra. I saw the production across two nights – firstly from the Balcony (the nosebleeds) and then on the second night from the Stalls. This is in some ways a slightly surreal Sunset. A dead Joe Gillis floats over the production with a strangeness which never feels quite comfortable and at times just looks odd – particularly so from high up. Although a clever idea, it’s a directorial choice which doesn’t quite work.

Sunset Boulevard © Richard Hubert Smith
Sunset Boulevard © Richard Hubert Smith

Joe Gillis (he of the dead body) narrates the show. Anyone who has seen the original Billy Wilder movie will hear movie dialogue as lyrics throughout the prologue – all credit to the team of Christopher Hampton and Don Black for their understanding of the brooding cynicism of the original movie. Lloyd Webber’s score is epic, David Cullen’s lush orchestrations sweep and soar through pentatonic scales into the realm of some of the finest show-stoppers of the modern British musical. The orchestra is phenomenal under the baton of Michael Reed, producing a sound of exquisite beauty.

 

Sunset Boulevard © Richard Hubert Smith
Sunset Boulevard © Richard Hubert Smith

Michael Xavier is a safe pair of hands, at first lending Joe Gillis the harmless charm of a floppy-haired retriever. His opening number “I guess it was 5am” is rich in exposition and segues neatly into the first big chorus number “Let’s Have Lunch”. Even a chorus comprising highly experienced West Enders had a minor battle with this on the first preview, but by the second night nerves had subsided and they were in powerful voice with every quick-fire syllable in perfect time.

As much as Joe Gillis is at the heart of the show (he’s in almost every scene), what everyone is really waiting for is those two short iconic lines “You There. Why are you so late?” marking the arrival of one of Theatre and Film’s most iconic characters – Norma Desmond. It’s an almost uniquely Broadway thing to applaud an actress simply for walking on stage, but here it felt spontaneous despite being a very “un-London” thing to do. Close walked down the minimalist staircase to thunderous applause. And if there’s one thing Andrew Lloyd Webber knows how to do better than anything else, it’s to write epic songs for iconic women so once she’d done with the monkey business, Close’s “With One Look” brought the already shaken house down around her like a female Samson shaking the temple pillars.

Sunset Boulevard © Richard Hubert Smith
Sunset Boulevard © Richard Hubert Smith

As I’ve already laid my cards on the table and said that Sunset has one of my favourite scores, I must be honest and say that as a book, I’ve never felt it works 100%. Yes, Close is mesmerising – “New Ways to Dream” is another great tune belted out to optimum effect, but then we have numbers which seem strangely anachronistic to a modern musical theatre audience: “The Lady’s Paying” with its lame and lazy assumption that everyone in retail and fashion must be camp, needs choreography to be even more outlandish if that’s the boulevard it’s going down. Here, Stephen Mear’s staging seemed stiff and formulaic. It’s a number of its time, and sits uncomfortably between deliciously camp and vaguely homophobic.

Despite this kind of niggle, Act One zips along relatively unhindered by any flaws in the book and offers a sumptuous feast of hummable melodies along the way. Norma’s costumes (Anthony Powell) reflect her stellar character – each more lavish than the last. The outfit in which she arrives for New Year’s Eve must have cleaned out most branches of Swarovski in the Northern Hemisphere.

Sunset Boulevard © Richard Hubert Smith
Sunset Boulevard © Richard Hubert Smith

Norma also dances a pretty mean ballroom – seducing Joe on the kind of floor which Rudi Valentino suggested because, well, “you need tiles to tango”. Here is one of Director Lonny Price’s most daring and divisive decisions: The ghost of “Young Norma” may not be to everyone’s taste, and when she pops in to take over from “Normal Norma” so that Glenn can have a breather, some of the audience might feel that she’s being a bit forward. Joking aside, it was a directorial decision which grew on me and on reflection added hugely to the emotional impact of the piece…I’m just not sure it will be to everyone’s taste.

Sunset Boulevard’s full orchestrations should have their own Olivier Award, with an entr’acte that sends shivers down the spine. This particular musical form seems to have fallen out of fashion, but it’s a great way to settle an audience and I wish more shows would use them.

Sunset Boulevard © Richard Hubert Smith
Sunset Boulevard © Richard Hubert Smith

Act two begins with a scene which will live long in the memory if only for Michael Xavier’s brave and very popular costume. His limited attire for the title track – Sunset Boulevard – drew appreciative gasps from many an audience member. One could almost feel the disappointment of women (and many men) of certain age in the Coliseum as he reached for a dressing gown.

As we sat wondering what could possibly top that, on swept Norma like a demented Zebra at the Grand National – the audience howled their approval. As the laughter subsided, a darkness returned and any ambiguity in Joe and Norma’s relationship vanished. Joe so totally capitulates to Norma that you can’t help but wonder if anyone can ever really resist the trappings of wealth which such stardom – even when fading – can offer.

Sunset Boulevard © Richard Hubert Smith
Sunset Boulevard © Richard Hubert Smith

One thing definitely not semi-staged about ENO’s Sunset is Norma’s car. One sees immediately why a Hollywood Studio might covet such a vehicle. Anyone who has returned to a familiar place to find only new people amidst their own haunting memories cannot fail to be moved by Norma’s return to Paramount Studios. Still, a few familiar faces do remain, and in the spine-tingling moment Hog-eye turns the spotlight on Norma, we fully comprehend what this actress once meant to the studio – and what Paramount Studios meant to her.

In the reprise of Surrender, the reappearance of Young Norma is both curiously unsettling and strangely moving. It’s almost as if the house itself were haunted. Such places seem to hold a particular fascination for Lloyd Webber – be it The Woman In White, the Casa Rosada in Evita, the Parisian Sewer or The Villa in Pau from Aspects of Love. Perhaps in some ways Sunset Boulevard IS a ghost story – it certainly follows some of the format.

Sunset Boulevard © Richard Hubert Smith
Sunset Boulevard © Richard Hubert Smith

Michael Xavier grows into his role in Act Two when Joe’s darker side is given full reign – and Xavier ultimately gives a great performance. You can read our full interview with Michael Xavier here. Joe’s split from Betty is ruthless and brutal. He may be trying to save Betty from Hollywood, but in all honesty having seen Sunset many times in many productions, I’m yet to understand whether we ought to feel sympathy for him as a character – even Xavier’s heroic attempts didn’t change that. If the musical had held to Billy Wilder’s vision of a truly cynical critique of Hollywood that might be more effective but here it is just confusing.

Performing nods must go to the velvet-voiced Fred Johanson as Max von Meyerling – in many ways one of Sunset’s most difficult roles because of its stillness in a churning sea. Siobhan Dillon has the voice of a lark and is a revelation as the innocent Betty Shaefer, turning what can be a cloying character into one of charm, wit and emotional intelligence. There is real chemistry between Dillon and Xavier and under their mastery, “Too Much in Love to Care” blossoms from a tuneful ballad to a belting showstopper.

Sunset Boulevard © Richard Hubert Smith
Sunset Boulevard © Richard Hubert Smith

I’ve always found the end of Sunset like one of those excruciating moments when you are given bad news and you want to laugh. Norma’s “mad scene” can, in the wrong hands, be un-deliberately funny. It’s here that Glenn Close’s talent and experience are unrivalled. She unleashes her full power and fury with utter control – the fact that Close herself is a Hollywood A-Lister only adds to the poignancy of her performance. At once victorious and utterly defeated, her Norma is a wounded Lion – and still as dangerous. But there is a childlike fragility at play here, and a sense of affected tragedy and total desolation. And such is Close’s acting prowess, that as she descends for the last time one truly feels a sense of one’s own mortality and the terrifying loss of our own power which can only ever be held fleetingly in the hands of youth.

There were moments when I found myself thinking “I will never see the like of this again in a lifetime of theatregoing.”

Spine-tingling.

Sunset Boulevard

London Coliseum
St Martin’s Lane
London WC2N 4ES

Until 7th May 2016

There’s a complete roundup of critics reviews for Sunset Boulevard at fantastic US Theatre site Playbill.com.

At the time of writing you can still find cheap tickets for Sunset Boulevard – I sat in the Balcony on the first preview and if you have a head for heights it’s pretty good value. But nothing truly beats sitting up front, just a few yards from Glenn Close – an actress who could very well rival Norma Desmond herself as The Greatest Star of All.