Wednesday, 17 December 2008

Review: Sunset Boulevard at the Comedy Theatre

Seen any Andrew Lloyd Webber this year? And I'm not talking about watching the Lord spout his meaningless witterings about "raising your game" and "going on a musical journey" on some Saturday night TV show.

I'm talking about bona fide, spine tingling, heart-string tugging clich├ęd-but-we-love-it musicals that seem to hit the right note (pun intended), every.single.time.

If you don't have the ALW gene, the one that makes your eyes well up when the two doomed leads start singing that octave-separated duet, the one that increases your heart beat when you hear that flute solo, the one that roots for that unwitting, innocent outsider pulled into an odd gothic entanglement (The Woman in White, The Phantom of the Opera, Sunset Boulevard), don't worry. But, well, I'm sorry: this might not be the show (or even the review) for you.

Sunset Boulevard is the Tony Award-winning 1990s musical of the 1950 film of the same name. It tells the story of a tragic relationship between an old silent movie star, Norman Desmond ("the greatest star of all", played here by Kathryn Evans), and a young writer called Joe Gillis (Ben Goddard). This reworked version, directed by Strictly Come Dancing's Craig Revel-Horwood, is greatly paired-down from the blockbuster it became, and features a cast of actor-musicians.

Like Avenue Q, there's a moment at the start of this Sunset Boulevard where you have to enter into a contract with the people on stage. In AQ, you agree to accept the puppets. Here, it's about the instruments. Yes, they're going to be playing their instruments on stage, in view, while dancing, while acting; in some cases, while having a conversation. Pretty much throughout. And yes, you have to go with it.

In fact the result, as well as being in awe of the incredible talent on stage, is an interesting one. While playing and watching in the sidelines, the musicians add another kind of participatory, voyeuristic audience to a play which is very much about playing, theatre, being on show, celebrity and audience.

The two leads are fantastic. Crazy self-obsessed old bat Norma Desmond is a dream role for any actress (Glenn Close, Elaine Paige and Petula Clark have all played her). Kathryn Evans' gorgeous full-bodied voice suits the big show-stopping songs perfectly. She also brings a desperate lonely physicality to the role –those long fingers, that long neck, those long eyelashes – that makes her more than a match for Ben Goddard's big-statured Joe.

Goddard shines as Joe, too. It helps that he's rather gorgeous, as well as being a likeable, troubled rake. I didn't mind watching Ben being stripped down to the pants of his writer's clothes and trussed up in tails at all. Joe's as enamoured with fame and celebrity as he is disgusted by it; this duplicity comes through particularly nicely in the rousing title song which Goddard totally nailed after the interval.

The rest of the cast are also ace. Kudos must go to Laura Pitt-Pulford making her West End debut as Betty, who not only manages to play the flute while "sunbathing" lying down, but also manages to get herself upright, gracefully, seamlessly without a break in playing. The girl's got stomach muscles.

Norma and Joe's wonderful New Year's Eve tango was a particular highlight; which is to be expected from a show directed by Revel-Horwood.

Tellingly, for a show about a writer, it has some lovely one-liners, some nice cheeky quips, some excellent turns of phrase and rhyme in the lyrics and the script. That's lyricist Don Black for you. He's the chap behind Born Free, a handful of Bond themes, and lots of other top notch classics. And here he's paired with Christopher (Atonement, Dangerous Liaisons, The Quiet American) Hampton. Here's a fantastic profile of Mr Hampton.

There are less successful moments. I didn't love the awkward, over-long car chase. The full-cast numbers occasionally felt a little clunky on the Comedy Theatre's stage. (Is it too small? Were we sitting too close – for once – and too on one side to appreciate the blocking?) And Ben Goddard occasionally needs to relax his (lovely, big, musical-instrument caressing) hands when he's singing.

But these are minor quibbles in a fantastic, magical piece of musical theatre, which really lived up to my expectations.

Take anyone under 18, whose New Year's resolution is likely to be to give up whichever musical instrument they currently hate practising because it's uncool. And anyone of any age with a pure and simple interest in theatre craft, and everything (clever props, gorgeous costumes, great sound and lighting) that goes into creating the magic of a show. And of course, this is must-see fodder for everyone with that secret ALW gene. Go, believe the illusion, and be taught "new ways to dream".

Sunset Boulevard is playing at London's Comedy Theatre until 18 April. Photo of the two leads tangoing is by Robert Day.

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