Joe (Danny Mac) is the in-hock screenwriter on the run. Two women hold his future in their hands: Betty (Molly Lynch), the film studio’s top smartass script reader, and Norma Desmond (Ria Jones), the needy, ageing star who offers Joe refuge but at the price of being a kept man. The original movie is one of those iconic greats, like Casablanca or Citizen Kane and it’s a brave man who tampers with it. Sunset Boulevard is a great choice for Andrew Lloyd Webber insofar as it has a great diva role at its centre and Ria Jones, and all the leads, provide some excellent, crowd-pleasing performances.
There are no true showstopper songs – although there are some great moments, especially the New Year scenes: Norma wanting to tango in her eerie mansion and Joe’s pals whooping up at a lock-in at Schwab’s – but the music moves the story on nicely. Christopher Hampton (of Dangerous Liaisons fame) and stalwart lyricist Don Black did the book and lyrics and there’s some gorgeous phrasing: “everyone needs new ways to dream”; “eternal youth is worth a little suffering”; Norma is “lost in her silver heaven” as she watches her old movies over and over again at home. (Is it at Webber’s insistence that there’s a lot of obvious moon/June rhyming couplets? Although there’s precious little that rhymes with “boulevard”.)
The music direction from Adrian Kirk is premier division, and staging from Colin Richmond (set and costume), Ben Cracknell (lighting) and Douglas O’Connell (video) – part moving sets, part projection – is a glorious rendering. There’s an all too brief scene where the stage seems to flip into black-and-white, like the original film, and there should have been more of this. The costumes are great too, from the studio personnel to Desmond’s turbans, peignoirs and flowing capes. At one point TV heartthrob Danny Mac appears for a dip in the pool in an open towelling dressing gown and there is an audible gasp from the audience as they think he’s naked underneath (calm down, dear, it’s flesh-coloured trunks!).
Sunset Boulevard is a real feast for Webber fans and those of the movie. This stage version might lack some of the original’s Grand Guignol, Hallowe’en creepiness (the dead monkey and the body in the pool might not be immediately obvious to those unfamiliar with Billy Wilder’s tongue-in-cheek creepshow) but it should send everyone off to buy or download this little piece of cinema history.