Thursday, 18 December 2008

Sunset Boulevard - Comedy Theatre

Sunset Boulevard
Music: Andrew Lloyd-Webber
Book & Lyrics: Don Black & Christopher Hampton
Director: Craig Revel Horwood
Musical Arranger: Sarah Travis
Reviewer: Honor Bayes

Coming from a critically acclaimed run at The Watermill Theatre, Craig Revel Horwood’s production of Sunset Boulevard is a pared down offering of a melodramatic classic but is anything but blandly minimalist. Comprising of two fantastic male leads, a belting leading lady and a talented ensemble of actor/musicians, this is a show with a lot of punch in a production which perfectly balances the propensity towards the fantastical that lies within this story with a down to earth yet theatrically modern functionality.

Andrew Lloyd Webber’s score is superb, at times hauntingly melancholic; it effortlessly intertwines the show’s ominous theme music with bombastic chorus numbers all performed by this marvellous company with a jaunty speak easy flare.

The Watermill has pioneered the use of actor musicians in their shows and it’s a style which works brilliantly with this revival and Sarah Travis’ musical arrangements and Horwood’s choreography are faultlessly in sync. The fluidity with which the performers jump from playing a big scene to literally playing the flute in a love duet with a clarinet or a double base in an interview scene whilst smoking a cigar and acting, is wonderful to watch and makes the show feel like a truly ensemble piece. This whirling ensemble of players succeed in creating a rich and tangible atmosphere on stage and it is hard to imagine how this piece would work without them. To their credit I would not want to see another Sunset Boulevard without this form being followed.

Ben Goddard does a marvellous job as Joe the young cynical writer who falls into Norma’s clutches and for a time seems happy to use her for his own mercurial ends. His detailed performance pitches the tone just right and where he could fall over the edge into melodrama he is always quick to pull it back. It is clear that he is having fun with this part and is relishing every look, wink, snarl and flutter and this comes across during his energetic and engaging performance.

Laura Pitt-Pulford turns in an appealing performance as Betty, Joe’s love interest. She is totally believable during her interactions with Goddard and the chemistry between them is palpable. In a wonderful example of the perfect interweaving of music and performance, her flute playing underlines her character perfectly; its bright melodies wrapped within a softly mournful tone. Dave Willetts as Max Von Meyerling is wonderfully sinister and was one of my favourite performances of the night. He gives off waves of menace and even violence and is truly frightening at some moments of the piece and yet at the end as Norma descends her staircase for the last time, his tenderness towards her is heartbreaking.
Kathryn Evans takes on one of musical theatre’s greatest roles with great aplomb. Her Norma skulks around her wilting environment with great elegance and she owns the stage during her big vocal numbers, her powerful voice reverberating around the theatre forcing you to pay attention to her falling star. When she hovers on the brink of madness at the end her fall into insanity is deeply moving to watch and as her eyes shine with tears you know she is throwing herself into the part completely. However even with all this hard work, she lacks the real star power required for the enormous part of Norma Desmond and her scenes with Joe never quite convince. One is not sure how she has such a hold over him and she does not quite live up to the divas that she is attempting to channel so doggedly.

Horwood’s direction and choreography and Travis’ musical arrangements compliment each other perfectly with a unity that belies an incredibly close working relationship. The pace is outstanding and the action is punctuated with instrumental pointers; a full stop of silence or a slow pause with a violin, these are moments which elegantly assist with the telling of this story. By requiring the actors to be musicians as well as musical theatre performers, a true synergy of music and performance has been created and it is exhilarating to see. This Sunset Boulevard is a lean mean melodramatic fighting machine, stripping away all the fluster and fuss, and leaving us with a polished, skilled and imaginative production of Billy Wilder’s heartbreaking and deeply moving story.

Photos: Alastair Muir
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