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Sunset Boulevard - Savoy Theatre

Were there laptops in 1950? Apparently so, according to this production of Sunset Boulevard, or Sunset Blvd. as it insists on marketing itself as. Betty Schaefer (Grace Hodgett Young) finishes off a script she’s been writing with the help of Joe Gillis (Tom Francis) – on Microsoft Word. The opening sequence in the second half, involving a walk-through from Francis’ dressing room, out through a side exit, up a staircase and round to the audience entrance of the Savoy Theatre – all filmed live at every performance – includes showing off a life-size cut out of Andrew Lloyd Webber (who was at least alive in 1950), and what appeared to be a poster of The Pussycat Dolls, of which this production’s star vehicle, Nicole Scherzinger, was a member of. I say ‘was’ – a reunion tour was announced in 2019 but then you-know-what happened in 2020, and while Scherzinger herself is on public record as saying the tour was officially cancelled, via a social media post in January 2022, there may be scope for a re-reunion at some point in the future.

Anyway, I wasn’t quite sure what the point was of displaying ‘1949’ at the beginning of the show, when in fact the production had made twenty-first century insertions. Even when Scherzinger’s Norma Desmond has Gillis dressed ‘up’ (inverted commas mine), he was hardly in smart clothing, and most if not all of the cast’s costumes are uninspiring black and white outfits. Hospital scrubs are more colourful. The show apparently has a set designer (Soutra Gilmour), although quite what Gilmour was paid to design, I have no idea.

Video projections could have been more extensively used – too many scenes were simply a blank and black canvas. Gillis gazes in awe at the sheer scale of Desmond’s house, but I had no idea what I was meant to be looking at. Camera work focuses on providing the audience with characters’ faces, projected onto a huge, almost stage-wide screen. When Desmond says her iconic line, “And now, Mr DeMille, I am ready for my close up”, she’s already had several.

The show therefore felt like a concert rather than a fully staged production. I have no interest in joining the diehard Sunset purists who will never accept anything less than the grand staircase and gothic-looking mansion of the 1993 West End production starring Patti LuPone and Kevin Anderson. But there ought to be something: when Desmond orders Gillis to “Sit down!” there is nothing to sit down on, so he has no choice but to sit on the floor.

Scherzinger’s performance was very varied. Yes, she can sing, and sing very well. She’s definitely a seat-filler: there were a couple of ladies in my row at the performance I attended who spoke at full conversational volume several times during the show, but never when Scherzinger was on. She also received two standing ovations (though not from me), one at the end of ‘With One Look’ in the first half, and the other at the end of ‘As If We Never Said Goodbye’ in the second. But again, it was like watching a concert, whereas I had come to see a musical theatre production.

When it came to spoken dialogue, Scherzinger’s Desmond would occasionally mumble, or otherwise over-enunciate, at one point to the point of hissing. Credit where credit is due: she does subtlety, unlike some Norma Desmonds who have tended to yell absolutely everything, and when she’s talking to Gillis or her trusted butler Max Von Meyerling (David Thaxton, who commendably does without that stupid ‘European’ accent so many other Von Meyerlings have adopted over the years), she speaks as though one would in one’s living room, letting the amplification carry her voice to the back row of the Grand Circle. But I thought this Desmond was too cute and too fluffy, and not eccentric enough to convince as a character whose mental state gets progressively worse.

Knowledgeable fans of the show might have fun figuring out all the lyric and dialogue changes, which make the production somewhat more cohesive. Alternatively, they may find it rather tortuous. As for me, I came out of the Savoy Theatre feeling about as glum as the cast’s curtain call faces (if they weren’t happy with their performances, why on earth should I be?), and on my way towards Charing Cross Station, I came across the Adelphi Theatre, with Back to the Future The Musical signs and posters outside, and I thought, “Huh. I should have gone to see that instead.”

Two stars

Photo credit: Marc Brenner

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