Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 1993 musical, with book and lyrics by Don Black and Christopher Hampton, has had the Watermill Theatre, Newbury treatment — which is to say a big show has been turned into a small one and populated with actors who double as musicians.
It’s a form that flies with a payoff, but falters with a trade-off. The latter is the game of spot the actor who can play a bit, or the musician who can act a bit. Not that there is anyone in this production directed by Craig Revel Horwood (aka the strictest judge on the BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing) who appears to lack ability in either field. But it’s not easy to convince as a ruthless, philistine Hollywood film producer while simultaneously picking out a natty rhythm on a double bass.
As for the payoff in what has become the Watermill style — developed by director John Doyle for his brilliant reinvention of Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd — it pares down a musical to the essentials of music and narrative.
In the case of Sunset Boulevard, which is taken from Wilder’s once seen, never forgotten masterpiece about an underemployed Hollywood hack who becomes ensnared by forgotten silent era star Norma Desmond, this means jettisoning the mega-buck West End values that famously hampered Trevor Nunn’s original production.
So here, the grand staircase down which Desmond makes her grand entrances — and up which she makes her grand exits — is more spiral fire escape.
Still, as diva Desmond, Kathryn Evans compensates for smallness with big silent-screen gesticulation and a spine-tingling delivery of the power ballad With One Look.
But it’s with the show’s one truly beautiful song, As If We Never Said Goodbye, that she transmits the tender vulnerability of a star forsaken and forgotten by 30 million fans.
As Joe Gillis, Ben Goddard puts on a winning performance as the hacked-off hack, which climaxes with a shocking spit at Evans’s needy Desmond.
But in her delivery of the show’s and film’s most famous line, “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small,” there is a predictability that chimes with a show that does everything well but contains no surprises.