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Sunset Boulevard – review round-up

Glenn Close in Sunset Boulevard. Photo: Richard Hubert Smith Glenn Close in Sunset Boulevard. Photo: Richard Hubert Smith
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After last year’s sell-out production of Sweeney Todd with Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel, the troubled ENO joins forces once again with the GradeLinnit Company for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Sunset Boulevard. Leading the cast is Glenn Close, who first took the role of forgotten silent movie star Norma Desmond on Broadway in 1994, for which she won a Tony.

Based on the 1950 Billy Wilder film, this musical version is altogether more theatrical, with lavish Hollywood backdrops exchanged for an onstage orchestra and only minimal staging, though it remains faithful to the film in most other respects. Following young screenwriter Joe Gillis as he befriends Desmond, we see the corrupting effect of fame and money as he takes much-needed bed and board as payment for working on the version of Salome that will surely resuscitate Desmond’s career. As the faded siren becomes increasingly delusional, so Gillis becomes a virtual prisoner in her home.

Book and lyrics are by Don Black and Christopher Hampton, direction by Lonny Price, design by James Noone, and the 48-strong ENO are conducted by Michael Reed. Michael Xavier, Siobhan Dillon and Fred Johanson join Glenn Close onstage. Megan Vaughan rounds up the reviews.

Sunset Boulevard – staging austerity

Sunset Boulevard1. l-r Glenn Close (Norma Desmond), Michael Xavier (Joe Gillis), photo by Richard Hubert SmithReflecting the fact that the ENO have introduced these star-led bankable musicals into its programme in response to a critical financial situation, several reviews connect this production’s ‘semi-staging’ with the organisation’s bottom line. There is certainly an ethical question about ticket prices to be asked, something which Kate Goodacre (Digital Spy ★★★★) and Mark Shenton (The Stage ★★★★) both touch upon, with Shenton noting that “ENO resources and subsidy are being employed to service what is essentially a commercial venture – with opera-scale pricing of up to £150 a ticket”.

This is especially interesting in light of James Noone’s pared-back stage design, arguably a budgetary decision. While Stephen Dalton (Hollywood Reporter) explains that “Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 1993 musical has a bumpy track record of selling out theaters while still losing money due to its ruinously expensive stage sets”, adding that James Noone’s understated design “looks clumsy and cluttered”, Matt Trueman (Variety) and Michael Billington (The Guardian ★★★★) find that this visual austerity opens up the story.

Trueman says “At first you feel short-changed … but in time, what starts as a concert in costume slowly begins to exert itself,” with Billington detecting the noir composition of Wilder’s film: “The consequence is that the book and lyrics by Don Black and Christopher Hampton, which remain commendably faithful to the movie, make their mark – and the story, which is basically about the entrapment of a weak-willed writer in an ageing star’s dreams, retains its darkness.”

Sunset Boulevard – Close-up on ageing

Glenn Close’s performance as Norma sounds remarkable, with Henry Hitchings (Evening Standard ★★★★) describing her as “majestic, tormented and teasingly seductive” while Stephen Dalton gives the impression that her “weapons-grade drag-queen blend of Cruella DeVil and Maggie Smith” is altogether less subtle. The Cruella DeVil reference pops up a few times, with critics perhaps forgetting that Close played this role too, on screen in 1996. These limited references certainly expose the fact there are so few older actresses of Close’s stature and gravitas (and parts for them to play).

In fact, the way these Sunset Boulevard reviews deal with age is very interesting. The casting of 69 year-old Close is overtly challenged by (West End Wilma ★★★★) – “twenty years ago she would have been the right age to play Norma Desmond and now, well she’s not” – and while that may be true, traces of ageism also appear in some responses to the sexual relationship between Norma and Joe. Matt Trueman, for example, says that Norma’s advances towards the young writer are “borderline unpalatable. He is, after all, half her age.” Perhaps, but a consenting adult nonetheless.

It is Andrzej Lukowski who is able to justify this. He, too, finds the disparity in age between the two leads to be uncredible, but qualifies that by saying that it “basically feels like watching a manipulative thirtysomething take advantage of a mentally ill old woman”. It’s about the person, not the date of birth.

It is Michael Billington, himself one of the oldest practitioners in his field, who recovers a sense of romance in all this: “The … key to Close’s performance is that she seems to grow younger with each scene…”

Sunset Boulevard – X-avier rated

Sunset Boulevard 11.  l-r Michael Xavier (Joe Gillis), Siobhan Dillon (Betty Shaefer) photo by Richard Hubert SmithDisregarding anybody’s birth certificate, the strongest sense of consensus is undoubtedly found in reactions to Michael Xavier’s apparently unforgettable opening to Act 2. While Mary Nguyen (LondonTheatre1 ★★★★★) appreciated his “lean, muscular and dashing” physique and Patrick Marmion (Daily Mail ★★★★) was obviously sitting close enough to notice his “fine teeth”, it was the tiny swimming trunks that attracted most attention.

The costume item described by William J Connelly (Gay Times ★★★★★) as “certainly an unexpected surprise” is proclaimed by Mark Shenton to be proof that “he still has the youthful appeal that he once brought to Mamma Mia!” Meanwhile, for Henry Hitchings, those trunks mark the point at which Joe moves from “velvety voice and debonair manner” to “positively devil-may-care”. I’m sure Niall R Palmer (From The Box Office ★★★★★) speaks for much of the audience when he declares “one could almost feel the disappointment … as he reached for a dressing gown.”

Sunset Boulevard – so is it any good?

It would appear so from the star ratings (which are primarily 4s and 5s, where they occur) although there is often disagreement about which elements of the production work well. The staging has divided opinion, and we’ve seen here that Glenn Close is either fantastic, or too old to be believable, depending on who you read.

Similarly, the 48-piece orchestra is described by Michael Billington as “the most sumptuous sound I’ve heard in a musical since the Halle orchestra accompanied Bernstein’s Wonderful Town”, but Close’s singing voice is absolutely lambasted by Warwick Thompson (Blouin Art Info): “Her vocal support is inconsistent, her tuning questionable, her sound variable. It’s not exactly what you’d call a joined-up voice. In fact in operatic terms, you could hardly call it a voice at all.” (If you’re interested in the musical merits particularly, have a look at David Nice’s review on The Artsdesk for an in-depth analysis.)

Overall the mood is positive, with both Kate Goodacre at Digital Spy and Holly Williams (WhatsonStage ★★★★) suggesting that Close will add to her previous Tony win when it’s awards time again, but, as usual (sigh), there are a few star ratings that seem inconsistent with their accompanying reviews. For example, Dominic Cavendish (The Telegraph ★★★★★) writes a piece that seems much more like a four than a five.

Of course, with Glenn Close back in one of her most acclaimed roles for only 5 weeks, it’s unlikely these reviews matter much to the show’s producers, nor to the ENO accountants, but perhaps one of the most interesting facts gleaned from the critics comes from Holly Williams at WhatsonStage, who suggests this is all merely “a warm-up for a movie version of the musical…”

Read Mark Shenton’s four star review in The Stage

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