Life & Culture

Sunset Boulevard review: Doesn't matter if you've seen this show before, you have not seen it like this

Nicole Scherzinger's Norma Desmond transmits a tragic ego the size of the cinema screen in Jamie Lloyd’s slick musical


Sunset Boulevard
Savoy Theatre | ★★★★★

Every now and then it is announced that a director is to stage a classic work that is so familiar it hardly seemed worth reviving. Then the show opens and it is like seeing it for the first time.

It happened with Nicholas Hytner’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and it happened when director Daniel Fish got his hands on the beloved yet creaky old Rodgers and Hammerstein classic Oklahoma!.

Now it has happened again with Jamie Lloyd’s version of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical adaptation of Sunset Boulevard, the 1950 Billy Wilder movie starring Gloria Swanson as forgotten film star Norma Desmond who says the immortal line, “I am big, it’s the pictures that got small.”

Since the musical, whose book and lyrics are written by Don Black and Christopher Hampton, premiered in 1993 there have been a fair few Norma Desmonds beginning with Patti LuPone, and including Elaine Page and West Side Story’s original Anita, Rita Moreno.

Glenn Close is perhaps the most memorable in the list. But it is hard to imagine any performance upstaging Nicole Scherzinger’s.

Though the pop and stage star is slight of frame her Desmond transmits a tragic ego the size of the cinema screen backdrop to Lloyd’s production. More than that she has a voice that can stop a train let alone a show.

We hear it first when she sings With One Look to our narrator, struggling screenwriter Joe Gillis (Tom Francis).

He first encounters Norma in her Sunset Boulevard mansion where she lives in splendid isolation but for her loyal butler Max (David Thaxton).

And we hear it again with Norma’s return to the film studio. Recognised by one of Cecil B. De Mille’s film crew she is bathed in light beams strong enough to knock a mortal off their feet.

But instead of falling she sings As If We Never Said Goodbye with a wattage that matches the light that bathes her.

Yet the real star of this show is the director’s vision. Lloyd’s production and Soutra Gilmour’s set is as black and white as the original movie.

And with live-feed onstage cameras and that giant screen it is almost as cinematic. There is even a title sequence.

The cameras project massive De Mille-style closeups of the protagonists. Norma’s is often superimposed over the younger blemish-free younger version that haunts the stage (Hannah Yun Chamberlain).

The video feed also enables a risky, tongue-in-cheek element to the production when the cameras go backstage and Francis’s Joe sings the title role number about the delights of the film backlots as he gives us a tour backstage.

It is risky because the noir mood of the show could so easily have been lost in this post-meta jokey sequence.

Yet Lloyd understands the modern audience’s thirst to be stimulated on multiple knowing levels.

It also helps that everything is anchored by terrific, emotionally true performances and a viscerally energetic chorus line.

In the male lead the show has a star that channels 1950s film screen charisma.

It is as if Tom Francis had been made in a lab from genes taken from Kirk Douglas and Robert Mitchum.

No matter if you have seen this show before. You have not seen it like this.

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