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‘Makes a virtue of its scratch staging’: SUNSET BOULVARD IN CONCERT – Leicester Curve (Online review)

There are many reasons why Curve Leicester’s digital production of Sunset Boulevard in Concert is the most fitting end to a year in which theatre and film have moved closer than ever, regional theatres have grasped the opportunities of digital performance far quicker than the West End and musical theatre has been most adaptive to the plethora of pandemic restrictions.

After a summer advocating and lobbying for reopening and testing equipment to make venues Covid-safe for audiences and performers, it felt entirely appropriate that an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical was the first professional production staged in London in late summer – the stunning Jesus Christ Superstar in Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre. Lloyd Webber also facilitated the first indoor public musical at the Palladium, Songs for a New World (perhaps now tentatively) scheduled to open at the Vaudeville Theatre in February, and now the online premiere of Nikoloai Foster’s version of Sunset Boulevard sees out the year.

Filmed within the last fortnight, Curve Leicester puts a new spin on the hybrid theatre-film approach by using all the possibilities of its empty auditorium to expand the playing space to create a production that retains the simplicity of a concert staging focused on characters and plot with only costume to suggest era and place. At the same time, Foster deliberately takes the audience out of the story, making visible the cameras, lighting rigs, crew and fellow cast members creating this digital version of Sunset Boulevard in Concert as the actors traverse the front and non-stage spaces of the venue. Almost Brechtian in style, it takes a few minutes to get used to but soon becomes a clever representation of the musical’s circular genesis from extraordinary 1950 movie by Billy Wilder to musical theatre production to now, once again, being committed to film.

Sunset Boulevard with lyrics by Don Black and Christopher Hampton is one of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s five greatest scores, sitting alongside Evita, Phantom of the Opera, Joseph and the Amazing Technnicolor Dreamcoat and Jesus Christ Superstar, all of which have music that immersively characterise their protagonist and their experience within the story. Often referencing the musical rhythms of their location, these shows use their score purposefully to reflect the interior emotional trajectory of their lead(s). Still within the bounds of musical theatre, Phantom, for example has an operatic pomp full of baroque stylings, threat and romantic innocence drawn to the bass notes of darkness, while Evita’s quite different political style captures the verve of revolution tempered by the complex dance rhythms of the Argentine tango and choral intensity of the Catholic requiem – but both create, reflect and enhance the psychological experience of the story.

Drawing on the sweeping styles of Silent Movie scores, Lloyd Webber does something quite different with Sunset Boulevard, eschewing the song and dance numbers that musical theatre law determines should open and close each Act, and instead draws inspiration from the small-scale intimacy of Wilder’s film where the narrator Joe Gillis and the tragic-strength of Norma Desmond are the focus. Sunset Boulevard has a couple of full-cast numbers about the lure of fame as desperate starlets, screenwriters and directors hope to make their mark but these events merely swirl around the central characters giving focus and context to their purpose in the story.

And that is not to say that the music is in any way smaller or quieter than Lloyd Webber’s other work; in fact Sunset Boulevard is akin to Phantom in its grandiosity using the sweeping and soaring of a full orchestra to open out the musical’s central themes of delusion, fantasy, the brief lifespan of stardom and the emotional truth beneath the facade of celebrity. Within its two Act structure there is a fragile bombast that entirely captures the contradictory notes in Norma’s personality, the grand dreams and memories that rouse and stir as she reflects on the life she had, with minor key reflections on the tragedy of her fall and the destructive tumult of her deluded self-awareness.

In scoring his leading lady, Lloyd Webber also notably draws on Middle Eastern sounds to reflect Norma’s obsession with Salome and there are hints woven through the instrumental elements of the score that emerge in As If We Never Said Goodbye as well as the famous conclusion. But there is also verve and energy that musically creates the whirl of Hollywood and life on a movie set, seen in the faster-paced title song sung by Joe at the beginning of the second Act and the frenzy of Joe’s escape from the baliffs with Act One’s car chase.

Foster for Curve Leicester pins the shape of his production around these musical cues from Lloyd Webber, adding layers of film to these sections that create a rush of energy during the chase scene or flicker with black and white images of Paramount Studios in its heyday. But what sets this hybrid production apart is its emphasis on the specific theatre origins of this production. Many of this year’s attempts to digitally represent a stage performance have, like an NT Live showing, taken an immersive approach, trying to take the audience as close to the story as possible while still maintaining the illusion of theatre.

This version of Sunset Boulevard instead makes a virtue of its scratch staging, denuding the production of elaborate scenery and setting to utilise (and thereby promote) the various spaces of the Curve auditorium, as though activity, encounters and plot devices spring from the building. And Foster’s approach serves a duel purpose, showcasing the facilities of the in-the-round space created to house the company, orchestra and camera crew while the theatre remains closed, while purposefully reinforcing the themes and purpose of Wilder, Lloyd Webber, Black and Hampton’s story that focuses on the mechanics of film making, the underbelly of Hollywood and the fairweather nature of fame.

Designed by Colin Richmond, with the orchestra placed in the stalls, scenes occur on the central circular platform, in various points in the seating on three sides of the stage, along the audience walkways and most atmospherically in the Circle where Norma Desmond makes her dramatic first appearance. This movement around the front of house performance space gives Foster’s production an added verve, suggesting the changing locations from the main-house and room above the garage within Norma’s extensive mansion to the Paramount lot and Schwabs Drug Store where Joe first encounters Betty, adding drama and intimacy that builds a considerable emotional and dramatic effect as the story unfolds.

The viewer is Joe’s confident, addressing us through the camera as he narrates his own history, a reliable if critical narrator who becomes increasingly aware of the compromises of his own character. Returning continuously to this device throughout, it grounds the production ensuring the we retain Joe’s point of view as the camera actively seeks him out, finding him in the stalls and gantries or underneath the seat rigging where his encounters with other characters come to life or Joe watches his life unfold with powerless hindsight.

It sounds frentic but underneath the layers of film, what emerges from these intriguing staging choices is a deepening emotional connection to and between the characters, one that immerses the audience in the unfolding tragedy of Norma Desomond’s determined comeback. The show really comes alive with her arrival theatrically lit by Ben Cracknell in the Circle where she delivers one of the show’s biggest numbers With One Look, and the balcony location proves to be a vital one for Norma, the only character (apart from butler Max) featured there and vital to her famous finale walk down the steps towards the baying news cameras.

Ria Jones offers superb vocal and performative range as Norma, grand, ostentatious and determined, in love with her own fame and its once potent effect on others but now fragile, tentative and almost agoraphobic in her inability to interact with the modern world. Jones shows a woman trapped in her own past, almost frozen in time and deeply deluded about her value and allure, as well as the practicalities of 1950s talkie film-making. Norma Desmond is a crazed figure but Jones never lets her seem entirely disassociated from reality – certainly not until the show’s intense conclusion – and there is real style and strength in her presentation of Norma, a woman not to be gainsaid or duped, admirably certain of her value and what is owed to her status.

Her relationship with Joe, though arguably one-sided in terms of genuine feeling, is given credibility by Jones, showing Norma as a once desirable prize still able to bewitch Joe with more than just money and lifestyle, a quality that pulls him back to her at the fateful New Year party. Her knowing attempts to manipulate him feel calculated in Jones’s interpretation, a selfish certainty that only her needs matter, and these contradictions only make Norma’s behaviour and pointed refusal to ‘surrender’ more understandable though nonetheless tragic. Musically, Jones is triumphant, delivering some of the best songs Lloyd Webber has written with incredible range while her return to Paramount number As If We Never Said Goodbye becomes quietly moving.

Danny Mac gives Joe plenty of causal swagger in the early part of the show, though besieged by creditors and down on his luck, this is Joe at his most assured and cheeky. But one fascinating aspect of this Curve production is to show how keenly this story is as much about Joe’s delusion as it is Norma’s and how violently that comes crashing down for the both of them. When Joe’s absorption into Norma’s lifestyle increases, we see a more cynical film noir hero, with Mac showing a character ashamed of himself, almost surprised at how quickly he sold out for easy comforts, but so enmeshed in them that he refuses to go back to the bleak life he once had.

This more compromised version of Joe emerges before us in Mac’s charismatic performance, overwhelmed not so much by Norma’s unwavering attention and demands but stifled increasingly by his own guilt as the months pass. What saves Joe from appearing grasping and unsympathetic is the sensitive and heartfelt connection he develops with very likeable fellow-writer Betty Schaefer (a rounded performance from the excellent Molly Lynch) that develops subtly over a few scenes in Act Two and quickly becomes the impossible escape from his situation that Joe still dreams of but recognises can never be. Admitting their feelings in Too Much in Love to Care is sweetly performed here by Mac and Lynch while their parting moment is gently devastating.

Jones’s performance may be the showpiece one, but Mac pins the show together, mirroring the experience of the audience as we encounter the strange events of this story and its characters, while charting the development of Joe from worldly but free writer to kept-man disgusted with his own nature. Joe’s own Hollywood dream is shown to be every bit as unlikely as Norma’s, and finding that he is unable to make it on his own despite plenty of friends in the business and Betty’s guidance which comes too late, Mac’s Joe reaches his tragic breaking point.

By presenting the complexity of its characters, Foster’s production of Sunset Boulevard in Concert builds to a powerful and emotive conclusion. Like Sondheim’s Follies, this is story about the ghosts of the past haunting the present, where characters filled with regret reflect on what they have become. This very different approach to hybrid performance centers on the sweeping emotional turmoil of Lloyd Webber’s music, pays tribute to Wilder’s original film and showcases the Curve Leicester venue; it certainly offers ‘new ways to dream,’ proving a beautiful and fitting finale to a year of considerable change for theatre.

Sunset Boulevard in Concert is available digitally from Leicester Curve until 9 January and tickets cost £20. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.

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