Review: Sunset Boulevard, London Coliseum

Published in What's on Stage on April 5, 2016

This semi-staged production is the second musical-in-an-opera-house collaboration between ENO and the GradeLinnit Company, following Sweeney Todd last year; this time, it’s star-powered by Glenn Close. She’s making her West End debut as Norma Desmond, the faded, reclusive star of the silent screen who enlists a screenwriter named Joe (Michael Xavier) to work on her come-back project, a movie of Salome.

The show is a come-back all of its own: Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical, based on the classic Billy Wilder film of 1950, opened in the West End in 1993 starring Patti LuPone, before going on to be a Broadway hit… starring one Glenn Close. It might be 20 years since she bagged a Tony in this part, but I wouldn’t bet against her scooping a few shiny new gongs this time round.

Close gives a performance that shades and shimmers like one of her sequined gowns: grandly majestic, her mouth set in a ferocious resolute little line, then giddy with girlish, gleeful, grotesque excitement. But when the fear takes hold, she’s suddenly needy and manipulative; pulling Xavier down towards her for a kiss, nails almost visibly digging into his back even through her long gloves, there’s no doubt that’s he’s in the grip of a fatal attraction…

But while there’s a wild-eyed creepiness here, it would also be impossible to be remained unmoved by the tragedy of her grand delusions. Close is unafraid to be vulnerable; that carries, even in such a large venue.

The voice? It quavers away on the high notes in the first half, but hey, that works with the character; her lower register, powering over the sumptuous, sweeping strings of an excellent ENO orchestra – visible onstage throughout, conducted by Michael Reed – is mightily affecting. It’s a frequent complaint that musicals don’t send you out into the night humming a tune like they used to, and Sunset Boulevard bolsters this theory; the big number, “With One Look”, which winds through Lloyd Webber’s persuasive, evocative score, is as insistent and irresistible as ever.

Xavier, who looks more matinee-idol than struggling writer, is smooth as Joe, taking advantage of Norma’s luxurious lifestyle even when it compromises his writerly ambitions and love life. It’s a bracingly cynical story of wealth trumping integrity, and he’s nastily sarcastic, practically spitting out the lyrics of the title track (another ear-worm). It’s a shame, however, he’s so darn condescending in his true-love scenes with a fellow screenwriter, Betty, played by bright, clear-as-a-bell by Siobhan Dillon; I wasn’t convinced she’d bother with this jaded, dream-ditching phony who keeps standing her up (she hasn’t been afforded the audience’s – frankly gratuitous – view of him clambering out of a pool, after all).

You might have noticed the mildly ominous term lurking at the top of this review: semi-staged. Still, given the show’s famously unwieldy original set, maybe James Noone’s construction – a film studio ‘stage’, filled with scaffolding staircases that rise around the orchestra – is a blessing. Car chases are conducted with sweeping spotlights and torches, and why not? It keeps things fleet, as do Stephen Mear’s montage-like scenes of movement that evoke, variously, jumping parties, busy film sets and feverish dreams.

The story, adapted by Don Black and Christopher Hampton, may have an operatic structure, replete with a big dramatic climax, but Sunset Boulevard is a show about a film that’s about film; move medium and you lose some greatness that sits in the very bones of the form. There’s a certain irony, too, in demanding the character of a silent movie star fill an opera house with her voice. But it has been mooted that this is really just a warm-up for a movie version of the musical. If so, Close, for one, has proved she’s still ready for her close-up.

Sunset Boulevard runs at the London Coliseum until 7 May

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