Theatre Review: Sunset Boulevard at The Comedy Theatre

By Zoe Craig Last edited 121 months ago
Theatre Review: Sunset Boulevard at The Comedy Theatre

Seen any Andrew Lloyd Webber this year? And we're not talking about watching the Lord wittering about "raising your game" and "going on a musical journey" on some Saturday night TV show.

We're talking about bona fide, spine tingling, heart-string tugging clichéd-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, we're 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's 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 pared-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 in the sidelines, the musicians add another kind of voyeuristic audience to a play which is very much about playing, theatre, being on show, and audience.

The leads are fantastic. Crazy self-obsessed old bat Norma Desmond is a dream role for any actress. Kathryn Evans' gorgeous full-bodied voice suits the big show-stopping songs perfectly. She also brings a 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. 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 he sings after the interval.

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.

There are less successful moments. We didn't love the awkward, over-long car chase. The full-cast numbers occasionally felt a little clunky on the Comedy Theatre's (small?) stage. And Ben Goddard occasionally needs to relax his hands when he's singing.

But these are minor quibbles in a magical piece of musical theatre from a talented cast of just 11 people.

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 an interest in theatre craft. And of course, anyone with that secret ALW gene. Go, believe the illusion, and be taught "new ways to dream".

Sunset Boulvard is playing at London's Comedy Theatre until 18 April. Image by Robert Day.

Read a fuller review here

Last Updated 17 December 2008