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Review Round-up: New Dawn for Webber's Sunset

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After an absence of 12 years, Andrew Lloyd Webber's Sunset Boulevard returned to the West End last night with the scaled down actor-musician Newbury production starring Kathryn Evans transferring to the Comedy theatre, where it runs for a limited season to 18 April 2009.

Based on Billy Wilder's 1950 Oscar-winning film of the same name, Sunset Boulevard depicts the faded glamour of the former Hollywood icon Norma Desmond, who’s now living in isolation with only memories for company. When struggling young screenwriter Joe Gillis appears at her crumbling mansion, she demands a second chance in the limelight.

Kathryn Evans and Ben Goddard reprise their Watermill roles as Desmond and Gillis, with West End veteran Dave Willetts joining the cast the actress’ servant, Max von Meyerling. The production is directed and choreographed by Strictly Come Dancing judge Craig Revel Horwood. Musical arrangements are by Sarah Travis, who also collaborated with John Doyle on previous Watermill actor-musician productions of Mack and Mabel, Gondoliers and Sweeney Todd, all of which had West End runs.

Overnight critics generally welcomed the revival of this “great and undervalued musical” with open arms. Most found Revel Horwood's “scaled-down, intimate” version actually surpassed its more grandiose West End predecessor, enabling the story to take centre stage (as opposed to the enormous staircase). Evans' “full throated” performance as Norma Desmond shone amid a “jaw-droppingly skilful” actor-musician cast, and Sarah Travis' “artful arrangements” were also heavily praised. There were some black marks, with more than one critic questioning the wisdom of retaining the filmed car chase sequence from the original production. But overall it appears that, in the words of the Evening Standard's Nicholas de Jongh, “small is better and sometimes beautiful”.

  • Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (three stars) - “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 … 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 … 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.”

  • Michael Billington in the Guardian (four stars) - “I normally resist shows in which the actors double as musicians. I no more wish to see Mrs Lovett in Sweeney Todd giving us a toot on the trumpet than I yearn for Tosca to pick up a fiddle in the midst of Vissi d'Arte. But my objections are overcome by Craig Revel Horwood's intelligently pared-down production, first seen at the Watermill Newbury, of Andrew Lloyd Webber's under-rated 1993 musical … Eschewing giantism, the production benefits Kathryn Evans' full-throated Norma: you feel she's still big, it's just the sets that got small … Dave Willetts lends a sinister Karloff-like weight to her supportive valet, and, thanks to the sparkling allure of Laura Pitt-Pulford as an aspiring Hollywood writer, you are keenly aware of what Ben Goddard's Joe is sacrificing in his adherence to Norma. But the main discovery is that inside Lloyd Webber's big belter of a musical, there is a smaller, more dramatic show that has been waiting for years to be let out.”

  • Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard (four stars) - “Small is better and sometimes beautiful when it comes to this scaled-down, intimate version of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 1993 musical melodrama, closely based on the famous Billy Wilder film … Sarah Travis’ artful arrangements help you clearly hear the romantic, nostalgic line of Lloyd Webber’s score, from the first moments when a single violin laments the murder of Ben Goddard’s handsome, baby-faced Joe Gillis … The 1993 production incited you to come out singing the praises of the sets, of that vast, spectacular staircase down which Norma comes like a tragedy queen en route to a meeting with destiny. It reeked of sumptuousness. Here the elegant designer Diego Pitarch reduces Norma’s home to a modest spiral staircase under which stands an upright piano, a candelabra perched upon it. The swimming pool into which Joe’s bullet-laden body tumbles is aurally suggested rather than depicted. Yet I was far more closely engaged by the doomed love affair of clinging Norma and unwilling Joe in this version than I was at the 1993 premiere.”

  • Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph - “In its essentials it's Phantom after a sex change, and it provides the composer with another opportunity to do what he does best: create a heart-aching, lushly tuneful musical with more than a hint of madness about it. The original production was encumbered by over-elaborate sets, and one of Trevor Nunn's more leaden productions. In contrast, this hurtling revival, first seen at the Watermill Theatre in Newbury in the summer, is light on its feet and blessed with both sharp wit and a superb ensemble … As the reclusive silent-movie star Norma Desmond, Kathryn Evans is every bit the equal of such predecessors as Patti LuPone and Elaine Paige, with her weird wild eyes, extravagant hand gestures and air of mothballed hope and corrosive loneliness … Horwood's choreography is neat and witty, but it is the sheer panache of the whole ensemble that makes this revival so special, plus the sense that justice has finally been done to a great and undervalued musical.”

  • Simon Edge in the Daily Express (three stars) - “The Watermill specialises in using actor-musicians, which works well at times – the performer who can sing, smoke and play the double bass at the same time is a particular treat – but it also adds to the sense of muddle. On several occasions actors are forced to clatter off through the stalls because the stage exits are blocked by instruments. Evans herself is in wonderful voice and stops the show with her glorious hymn to the silent era, 'With One Look'. But she doesn’t convey why Norma is so wrong for the talkies. Sure, she is monstrous, but she isn’t ridiculous. Her big, deluded arrival at the Paramount lot is meant to be embarrassing, but here you end up wondering why Cecil B DeMille (Craig Pinder) doesn’t hire her. Only in her crazed finale – 'I’m ready for my close-up' – does she achieve Norma’s real grotesquerie.”

  • Dominic Maxwell in The Times (four stars) - “One of Lloyd Webber’s strongest scores gets performed with a flourish by a cast of 11 who play all the instruments too. Never has the Watermill’s cash-conscious house style chimed so well with the times … Sometimes the staging short-changes us on the woozy atmosphere this bleakly comical story needs. In the first act, Joe’s isolation and Norma’s delusions of grandeur are ill-served by the proximity of hard-working actor-musicians. And there’s little to distinguish the dreamy world of Norma and her manservant Max from Tinseltown. Also, some of the staging is fudged – a black-and-white back projection during a car chase reminding you that you’re watching something nicked from a film. But, Revel Horwood’s production is persuasive. As this jaw-droppingly skilful cast jump between instruments, Lloyd Webber’s score is always interesting, sometimes catchy … There are sketchy moments that need your goodwill. But the playing and the tunes come up fresh enough to make it worth the bother.”

    - by Theo Bosanquet
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