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Sunset Boulevard - Theatre Review

Based on the 1950’s film of the same title Sunset Boulevard was revived at The Savoy Theatre, London for a limited run by director Jamie Lloyds in his inimitable style.  


In this modern rendition of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s revered musical, Hollywood royalty Norma Desmond, portrayed by the acclaimed Nicole Scherzinger, finds herself exiled from the glittering spotlight. Trapped within a claustrophobic realm of dreams and remorse, Desmond’s chance encounter with screenwriter Joe Gillis (Tom Francis) becomes a glimmer of hope in her desolate existence. However, their tumultuous liaison teeters on the brink of mutual destruction. This adaptation encapsulated the timeless struggle of these character to retain their relevance in the cutthroat world of showbiz, offering a glimpse into their desperate quest for significance amidst the relentless churn of the industry.  


This production drew in audiences primarily due to the star power of Scherzinger, despite the hefty ticket prices starting at £90; or £20 to see Rachel Tucker as Norma Desmond on Monday evenings. Upon entry, the theatre environment was uncomfortably hot, humid and dimly lit. While ambiance is appreciated, this setup caused an almost discomfort throughout the performance. Additionally, the decision to maintain a very dark auditorium, coupled with a black theatre program featuring thin white text made it challenging for anyone to read, a poor design choice in my opinion. A fair amount of the audience around me opted not to return after the interval, leaving me to question wether this mass exodus was driven by the lack of comfort or dissatisfaction with the show.  

Nicole delivered a stellar portrayal as Norma Desmond, showcasing remarkable talent and acting finesse, a performance nearly matched by Grace Hodgett Young’s compelling portrayal of Betty Schaefer. The vocal prowess exhibited by both actors was simply breathtaking, evident from the spine-tingling agility and tone displayed throughout. Scherzinger’s opening song garnered a well-deserved minute-long applause - a reception she is no stranger to, hailing from her previous stardom with the Pussycat Dolls.  


Directed by Jamie Lloyd, recognised for his penchant for modernistic adaptations of timeless classics, such as the highly acclaimed rework of Henrik Ibsen’s ‘A Doll’s House’, this rendition of the musical adopted a bold approach in lighting and design. Embracing a colourless palette, this production employed exclusively black, white and grey in set and costume design, exclusively employing white light to illuminate the stage.  


A stand out feature of the production was the incorporation of a video screen that enveloped the stage with a live black-and-white relay of the performance, aiming to capture the nuances of the show. However, while this innovative addition offered depth, I found myself contemplating whether relying on close-ups via video screens to convey the performers’ intentions verged more on film acting than traditional stage performance. Nevertheless, this element, albeit debatable, added an intriguing layer to this production.  


In the attempt to modernise the production - a move that, in my view, didn’t quite hit the mark. Normal Desmond, a character emblematic of stardom, traditionally embodies a world of lavish costumes and enviable grandeur. While Nicole Scherzinger, an artist of that same echelon, brought a high-brow celebrity feel to the role, the visual portrayal fell short of fostering the necessary suspension of disbelief. Despite Scherzinger’s star power, her characters attire appeared as plain as any other cast member, which failed to elevate her above the rest, detracting from the essence of Desmond’s high status. Consequently she appeared no more distinguished than the financially struggling writer. Visually, the production mirrors the aesthetic of classic black-and-white films often found at Cannes Film Festival. Because the production makes bold choices in its visual presentation, I foresee critics potentially lauding it with awards more for its audacity than for its aptness in capturing the story.  


One standout moment that truly resonated with me was Scherzinger’s captivating portrayal as she covers herself in the blood of the man she’s murdered. The meticulous attention to lighting, sound design and depiction of madness during that sequence held my attention. It’s the kind of gripping theatre that could be watched on a loop - a captivating five minutes that stood out amidst the rest of the show. While I’ve critiqued various aspects of the production in this review, this particular moment was undeniably great. Even with its moments of greatness the overall performance didn’t entirely justify the steep ticket price, failing to meet the loft expectations set by critics in circular glasses and turtle-neck jumpers. 


Nicole has announces that she will continue her portrayal of Norma in this production as it transfers over to a New York Broadway theatre this year. However the production closes on the 6th of January 2024. 

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