Our very own theatreCat Libby Purves reviews Jamie Lloyd’s new production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Sunset Boulevard at the Savoy Theatre.
ITS THE PICTURES THAT GOT SMALL? Not if Lloyd can help it.
It felt strange to see this in the bowels of a gala-night Savoy, only a week or two after our local arts centre showed the 1950 film of this tale of lost fame, ageing delusion and murder : Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond , the has-been megastar in a decrepit Hollywood mansion with a dead pet chimp and Max the protectively adoring butler, battening on the disillusioned writer Joe to help with her comeback script. The film’s a legend: Cecil B De Mille actually played himself. This Lloyd Webber musical (book and lyrics by Don Black and Christopher Hampton) had an outing with Glenn Close at ENO a while back, and this is Jamie Lloyd’s ultra-moody, mixed-media monochrome take on it.
At its core (except on Mondays) is the weaponized diva that is Nicole Scherzinger. Even without the considerable ingenuity of the director, the former Pussycat Doll is primed to blow anybody’s socks off. Indeed in a way the tricksy spareness and abrupt closeup face videos of Lloyd’s setting provide the proper frame for this human volcano: black box, smoke, spotlights, occasional walking camera-operators projecting the cast’s 50ft high faces above. There’s no grand staircase, indeed no furniture at all until 35 minutes in the lugubrious Max provides the bewildered narrator-victim Joe with a single chair. But the orchestra, of course, under Alan Williams is sumptuous , and the music agreeable. It’s Lloyd Webber halfway between the yearning romanticism of Phantom and the wild edge of School of Rock.
Tom Francis’ Joe is nicely dry, disillusioned, doubtful of the once great star but hypnotised by her deranged self-belief, and David Thaxton’s Max is suitably threatening. Both are fine voices, and Francis in a mischievous post-interval film is seen roaming the theatre corridors and appearing from the Strand singing on film, only to finish the number live striding down the aisle. The original was, remember, a black comedy in intention: it’s OK to laugh at poor Norma. You could make a case for showbiz misogyny, but why bother?
The star debut of Grace Hodgett Young as Betty, Joe’s true love and co-writer, is also remarkable: her melodic sweetness a nice foil to the crazy beautiful yowl of Scherzinger. The ensemble, storming around as wannabes and audition-fodder in rehearsal clothes are choreographed as festive or sinister by turns.
But Scherzinger!. An unruly diamond, a perilous untameable phenomenon, both vocally powerful and physically witty. It is quite something to see her dreaming her ambition to be Salome, with wild rolling barelegged frenzy in a black silk slip and streaming black hair, doing the upside-down splits and howling like a nymphomaniacal panther-goddess. Yet sometimes she stands like a statue while the subplot of the young rolls around her, and there is an edge of pathos. For all the glorious numbers in which she and her erstwhile director Max claim the mission to “give the world new ways to dream”, her real need is for adoration from “all you wonderful people out there in the dark”.
She certainly casts off for good the ghost of Gloria Swanson: Lloyd has no intention of capitulating to retro romanticism and clapping his Norma in a turban and greying curls. And why would he? The text makes clear that despite talk of fading, the actual age of this outworn hag deserted by 30 million once devoted fans is…about forty. There was a faint gasp from the young Arts Ed students in front of us at the cruel line “nothing wrong with being forty unless you play twenty”. So Schertzinger’s flowing mane and athletic flow are just fine.
And while I tend to roll my eyes a bit at Jamie Lloyd’s incurable directorial instinct to show off more than his cast, by the time we got to the frenziedly confusing final scenes of running, shouting, swinging cameras, giant faces and general rage I was on the whole glad to have been out there in the dark for two and a half hours, being wonderful. Ticket prices btw are not too bad, given that the view is pretty good from anywhere.
Plays through 6 January 2024 at Savoy Theatre