It is over ten years since Sunset Boulevard closed in the West End after a three and a half year run (that was deemed a flop by Andrew Lloyd Webber standards) so it is very good news that the stripped down Watermill, Newbury, summer production by Craig Revel Horwood of this mordant, macabre and marvellous musical has been shunted into the Comedy for a winter season.

Whereas John Napier’s design for Trevor Nunn’s original production was a magnificent baroque palazzo with a giant staircase and a huge cast, Revel Horwood and his designer Diego Pitarch have a cast of eleven actor-musicians whirring around a simple spiral staircase, down which Kathryn Evans as Norma Desmond still manages to descend like a bedazzled harpy.

She sings magnificently, does Evans, ripping the heart out of “With One Look” (no musical numbers are listed in the programme, which is a disgrace; see my blog!) before proposing “New Ways to Dream”. It was always a wonderful irony that a silent movie star made her comeback in a lush musical, but there is also the sad desperation of a forgotten icon pitching for sex and companionship with a young wannabe screenwriter, Joe Gillis.

Ben Goddard as Joe, bearing a striking resemblance to both Paul Merton and the role’s originator, Kevin Anderson, forms a strong apex of the emotional triangle with Norma and her creepy valet Max Mayerling (Dave Willetts), the old movie director based on Eric von Stroheim who was Norma’s first husband.

The miracle of Sarah Travis’ arrangements is that in anatomising the Gothic richness of the score, they still suggest that richness. And Laura-Pitt-Pulford, busily melodic on flute – alongside Elisa Boyd on violin and versatile plucking and blowing from Alexander Evans, Kate Feldschreiber and Sam Kenyon - still manages an appealing characterisation of Betty Shaefer, Joe’s ginger squeeze at the studio.

I’m surprised that the show retains the filmed car chase, which was always a sign of defeat in the original. Overall, the small-scale approach is not as thumpingly convincing for this piece as was John Doyle’s on both Sweeney Todd and Mack and Mabel.

But the book and lyrics by Don Black and Christopher Hampton are as rewarding and literate as ever, both in the romantic numbers and the hectic cynicism of “Sunset Boulevard” (well articulated by Goddard) and “Let’s Have Lunch” in the drugstore. And Willetts does well, without tingling your spine, with that wonderful surprise rising major-key resolution on “I’ve seen so many idols fall, she is the greatest star of all.”

- Michael Coveney


NOTE: The following FOUR STAR review dates from July 2008, when this production premiered at the Watermill, Newbury.

As the film noir opening sequence segues into a brassy full-on meet-the-band parade, this dazzling reworking for actor/musicians takes you straight to the heart of its dark story of Hollywood hopefuls and has-beens. On Diego Pitarch’s atmospheric set, ingeniously dominating this small space with a spiral staircase evoking the gloomy grandeur of the Sunset Boulevard mansion where lonely Norma Desmond nurses her neuroses, director Craig Revel Horwood and musical arranger Sarah Travis seamlessly collaborate to produce great story telling.

Travis’s ravishing arrangements thrillingly fill the small space – and your headspace – much as erstwhile silent film star Norma Desmond’s face once filled the screen. In this musical based on a film, the actor/musicians provide the audience with the intriguing experience of engaging with a movie score and the musicians playing the notes.

The marriage of instrument and actor, all skilfully choreographed, provides an integral quality for each character and Travis provides texture and variations of pace that enhance the mood and move the action. Brass dominates the antics of the young wannabes, its brittleness emphasising their febrile neurosis as they make a show of wielding their big shiny instruments. Plangent strings underscore tender moments, deepening the emotion, and strike warning notes to add to the suspenseful scenes.

Actor/musicians usually create a terrific collaborative ensemble and these well-cast performers are excellent in their individual roles too. Ben Goddard is uncomfortably convincing as struggling screenwriter Joe Gillis, whose life is changed forever when he stumbles by chance into the mansion – and the clutches – of the ageing siren, Norma Desmond. As he succumbs to the material temptations she offers and surrenders his principles, he actually manages to look sleeker and fatter – and he brings a big voice to his central role of narrator/protagonist.

Kathryn Evans’ Norma is by turns touching and terrifying, making it easy to see how Gillis becomes entrapped. Her singing catches the fragility of Norma’s sanity, bordering on hysteria, but staying rich and true – this Norma could have easily made the transition to the talkies! Edward York gives Norma’s devoted butler, Max von Mayerling, a creepy sincerity, working with logical inevitability towards his climactic revelation.

It’s invidious to pick out so few when all deserve praise, but Laura Pitt-Pulford is feisty and vulnerable as Betty, Joe’s would-be writing partner, already at twenty-two with twelve years as an aspiring child star behind her, as much a victim of Tinseltown as Norma and Joe.

This has to be as good as this musical gets – although Lloyd Webber’s development of the same few portentous themes with rare variation or light relief and even rarer middle eights becomes relentless and I came out humming the arrangements rather than the tunes.

- Judi Herman