tue 25/06/2024

Sunset Boulevard, Savoy Theatre review - Nicole Scherzinger stuns in an exceptional production | reviews, news & interviews

Sunset Boulevard, Savoy Theatre review - Nicole Scherzinger stuns in an exceptional production

Sunset Boulevard, Savoy Theatre review - Nicole Scherzinger stuns in an exceptional production

Director Jamie Lloyd at the height of his powers in this stark, sublime reinterpretation

With one look: Nicole Scherzinger as Norma Desmond All images Marc Brenner

Jamie Lloyd has the gift that keeps on giving.

Hot on the heels of recent productions on Broadway and at the National Theatre, the visionary director is back in the West End with a stupendous reimagining of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s modern classic Sunset Boulevard, starring Nicole Scherzinger (of Pussycat Dolls fame) as the forgotten screen queen Norma Desmond.

With book and lyrics by Don Black and Christopher Hampton, Webber's 1993 piece is an adaptation of Billy Wilder’s cult 1950 film, and finds itself, in this instance, subjected to a further adaptation in Lloyd’s masterful hands. Endlessly fierce and hip, this bold interpretation of the material dazzles with its transformation of the musical’s bare bones into a tragic feast of profound power.

Here, perhaps more so than in his previous work, Lloyd brings together his eclectic influences—ranging from street dance to Pina Bausch, from classic Hollywood cinema to the European avant-garde—in a melting pot of astounding originality. His spartan, modern-dress production not merely treats the story in a timeless key, but strips it down to its darkest core, unleashing in the process a swarm of beguiling energies.

At first, however, the struggling screenwriter Joe Gillis (Tom Francis, remarkable) must emerge out of a body bag to start recounting the events that will culminate in his murder. When a chance encounter with the faded silent-film star Norma Desmond leads him to start ghost-writing her script and living with her in a Hollywood mansion, Joe finds himself torn between the demands of this bizarre arrangement and the pull of his collaboration with young writer Betty Schaefer—with disastrous results for all involved.

Now, imagine all this occurring in a strictly black-and-white, denuded scenic world (pictured below). Marked by Jack Knowles’s searing shafts of bright light and Soutra Gilmour’s hauntingly spare design, the playing field is reduced here to its basics and brilliantly transformed into a theatre of the mind. A variety of performance styles—running the gamut from deadpan to camp—is assembled and interwoven in service to a cunningly dynamic staging, in which even the central figure of Norma is refracted into multiple embodiments.

Essential to this concept is Lloyd’s sleek use of cinematic storytelling. This is a production increasingly seduced—like Norma—by the opportunities of the camera, as both extended off-stage episodes (including one outside the Savoy) and intimate moments on stage are projected live on an enormous tilting screen at the back of the stage. Lloyd further integrates the camera into the action by having Norma directly pose and play for it in self-indulgent, tongue-in-cheek ways. The characters are drawn to both the exposures and the deceptions afforded by this device: even as Nathan Amzi and Joe Ransom’s video design lets us in on the unfolding drama’s spatial and psychic underbelly, it also wittingly alienates and distorts the figures it captures.

As the most striking of those figures, Nicole Scherzinger delivers a bravura performance in a leading part that demands much from the actress. Appearing at once formidable and brittle, she exudes the sort of power that always seems to betray its frail constitution. Scherzinger’s seamless modulations between extremities—one moment roaring like a tigress, the next whispering in torment—turn Norma into a character of great sympathy. Her brilliantly controlled renditions of “Surrender” and “As If We Never Said Goodbye,” in particular, are hypnotic in their poignant intensity.

With his strong vocals, Tom Francis is a coolly charming, youthful Joe, who is especially arresting in his duets with Grace Hodgett Young’s assured Betty (both pictured below). David Thaxton presents Norma’s right-hand man—and ex-husband—Max as an affably serious devotee whose gruff demeanour masks an affectionate soul, which comes through in his moving performance of “The Greatest Star of All.”

Indeed, especially in the show’s second half, the emotive power of the musical numbers (musical direction by Alan Williams) reaches for a kind of tragic grandeur that is expertly accommodated by the production’s firm-footed minimalism. One of Lloyd’s great achievements is his productive counterpointing of the cast’s near-operatic tenor with a calculated suppression of their physical supports and surroundings. With its punchy reliance on successive blackouts and a prop-less stage, the climactic scene of Joe’s death—followed by Scherzinger’s shattering final number—is a memorable case in point.

Through this radical and rigorous aesthetic, Lloyd delivers a pungent critique of the twinned cults of youth and power that afflict show business. Often captured by Fabian Aloise’s choreography in quasi-militant chorus lines or gyrating configurations, Sunset Boulevard’s young ensemble increasingly evokes a conveyor belt of fresh talent, where everyone seems destined for an end like Norma’s. The ultra-gothic mood on stage, coupled with the chilling disintegration of Norma’s psyche, culminates in a potent cautionary tale about the perils of fame—and of its relentless pursuit by many.

Even as the production drives home this grim warning, Sunset Boulevard astonishes with its bracing poise, unforgettable tableaux, and stellar performances. Hands down, it is one of Lloyd’s most accomplished shows to date.


The director Jamie Lloyd brings together his eclectic influences in a melting pot of astounding originality


Editor Rating: 
Average: 5 (1 vote)

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