Tuesday, 22 July 2008

Sunset Boulevard - Watermill Theatre

Sunset Boulevard

The Watermill Theatre - Wed 9th Jul - Sat 30th Aug

Music by Andrew Lloyd-Webber

Lyrics by Don Black

Directed by Craig Revel Horwood
Musical supervisor and arrangements by Sarah Travis

Reviewed by David Saunders

I had high hopes upon entering the theatre and was looking forward to a performance, inventively staged in what has come to be one of Britain’s premier small scale venues. I can say on my accounts my hopes were well founded. The piece focuses on washed writer Joe Gillis who after many years working in Hollywood has traded in his idealist goals for cynicism. Following a chase through the streets of Hollywood he arrives at the mansion of faded silent movie star Norma Desmond. The show then tells the story of these two people both struggling to find their way.

The setting designed Diego Pitarch used a central grandiose spiral staircase as its focal point with all of the action taking place on a short thrust stage. The set had all the old Hollywood glamour required for this show and added the much needed elevation to the cramped stage floor. The piece itself is largely to do with scale and the art of the grand performer. The set certainly helped to facilitate those grand moments. The costume for the piece was very much as expected with the lion’s share of the wardrobe naturally going to Kathryn Evans as Norma Desmond. The remainder of the cast seemed to unfortunately have been sent to Marks and Spencer to find their own costume. While the focus must be on Norma it is still vital that the other characters have a clear relationship in their costume to the era the piece is set. It is not enough to have one set of fabulous dazzling costume for one actor if the rest of your cast is not even dressed to fit the same era.

The lighting and sound served the show in what was form a technical point of view a crisp slick performance. The space itself is cramped and requires a lighting designer to be economical and also inventive in establishing the correct level of glamour. The design by Richard G. Jones was more than capable of doing so.

The performances themselves now fall under the spotlight and we begin with the most established of actors first. Kathryn Evans brought to the role a fragility I had not seen before the manipulation of Joe Gillis could almost be forgiven. This is a woman who is desperately clinging to her life gone by and the depth of the performance allowed us to see Norma not just as a fallen idol but as a real character with emotional sincerity. The issue with the piece as a whole is that while Norma Desmond is larger than life the other characters are our link to the ‘real’ world. With this in mind it is vital that they are played for the emotional reality of their situation but also remembering this is not the royal court and the need for histrionics among your performers is not required. With this in mind I come to the performance of Ben Goddard. This is clearly an actor of emotional depth and I think given the right role a performer capable of engaging with an audience emotionally. However I do feel that in this part he has been done a disservice by the director. This is not a piece where huge gesture and flailing arms are required. The performance seemed at odds with the rest of the cast and seemed out of context within the piece. The role seemed too thin for Mr. Goddard and although the voice of this actor is the perfect fit the performance was too big for the stage at the Watermill.

The remainder of the cast worked wonders on the compact stage moving seamlessly between multiple roles and using every inch of space to wring every last drop out of each note and step. This is one of hardest working companies I have seen on a stage and add in to that the musicianship and you have a hugely rewarding set of performances for an audience.

I must make mention of the wonderfully streamlined musical adaptation by Sarah Travis which allowed all the sweeping atmosphere of Lloyd Webber’s music to survive but brought a new darker edge to the show in our compact environment.

The choreography had naturally, given Mr. Revel Horwood’s experience all the required glitz. I do feel that at times the direction lacked the requisite inventiveness for the space. At times the show seemed too big for the stage and it should fall on the director to find clever ways of getting around any issues that the performance space may offer. This to my mind was not always the case especially in the scenes between Joe and Betty Schaeffer where the performances seemed stilted and restrictive.

All in all the piece was entertaining though with all the expected glamour in looks and all the expected bright sparks in musicality but for my mind a greater degree of thought in the use of the space would have served the fine performances better.

Photo credit: Robert Day. Ben Goddard as Joe Gillis, Kathryn Evans as Norma Desmond

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