Sunset Boulevard stands as a provocative challenge to one’s preconception that the West End musical has become a predictable and tired genre. Jamie Lloyd’s mesmerising rendition of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 1993 musical is avant-garde in its amalgamation of stage and film; live, close up recordings of the actors are projected onto a large, slanted screen which provides the backdrop for the performance. Reckless and daring in its style, Lloyd’s production is an innovative masterpiece which confronts any prejudice that the musical is an inferior genre amidst the world of theatre.
The plot, based upon Billy Wilder’s 1950 film, follows the faded Hollywood star of the silent film era, Nora Desmond, as she becomes infatuated with the young and struggling screenwriter, Joe Gillis, whom she sees as an opportunity to make her return to the spotlight. Nicole Scherzinger plays a hauntingly beautiful and feral Norma Desmond. In stark contrast to her previous roles as pop star in the Pussycat Dolls and long standing celebrity judge on The X Factor, Scherzinger’s macabre performance is pervaded by richness and profundity.
Prowling around the stage with feline elegance, Scherzinger intermittently lunges towards the cameras on set with vicious snarls. Jack Knowles' skilful lighting, combined with Nathan Amzi and Joe Ransom’s video design, is unforgiving in the way that it reveals not only every ounce of emotion on a character’s face, but also every pore or bead of sweat. Scherzinger’s close ups, captured on the large screen behind her, thus expose her imperfections, specifically signs of ageing. Fading beauty coincides with a demise in fame for Norma, yet an attempt is made to retain youthful beauty through heavy, thick eye makeup and burgundy painted talons. Norma’s deteriorating image is placed in contrast to the radiant and unblemished depiction of her younger self, played by Hannah Yun Chamberlain. Young Norma’s soft disposition, related through her enchanting style of dancing and peaceful silence, is placed in opposition to the disturbed and hysterical person that she has now become.
As an instance of metatheatre, there is a possible allusion to the circumstances of Nicole Scherzinger’s own career and history as a member of the American pop group, Pussycat Dolls. Despite achieving worldwide success with a multi-platinum debut album in the early 2000s, the triumph of the group quickly dissipated due to internal conflicts and the group was disbanded in 2010. Scherzinger’s moment in the spotlight occurred when she was in her late teens and early 20s, just like Norma, yet now the Pussycat Dolls, as well as silent cinema, are only a distant memory. This association is made explicit in a moment of comedy as the camera enters into the backstage dressing room of David Thaxton, who plays Max, Norma’s ex-husband and servant, and catches him admiring a photo of the American pop group which is stuck onto his mirror. Nevertheless, Scherzinger’s past as a vocalist has afforded her with a powerful, operatic voice that reverberates around the Savoy Theatre, the vibrations of which you can quite literally feel shake through your body.
Equally captivating is Tom Francis’ charismatic performance as the naïve screenwriter, Joe Gillis. One can see why Norma becomes so besotted with him; Joe is charming as he shifts between moments of vulnerability and confidence. His masterful storytelling enables the fluidity of the whole performance in the way that he draws all the characters together and maintains high levels of energy throughout with his effervescent dancing style.
Francis leads the most surreal moment in the performance, just after the interval, when the camera follows him backstage and out onto the Strand whilst he sings the musical’s signature number, miraculously making it back on set for the final note of ‘Sunset Boulevard’. One can’t quite comprehend how this live recording works, with the complexity of cameras, microphones, the rainy weather and people out on the street providing many possible obstacles. It is an awe inspiring, revolutionary moment of artistry that transcends the boundaries of the stage.
Lloyd’s reimagination is pervaded by eccentricity, and there were times during the performance, such as the moment mentioned above, where I questioned the reality of what I was watching. Was the live streaming of Francis’ perambulating along the Strand real or just an illusion? The illusory quality of the production, heightened by distorted lighting and the monochrome set and costume design, parallels Norma Desmond’s delusions and frenzied state of mind.
The highly charged atmosphere of the Savoy Theatre was teeming with possibility. Lloyd’s galvanising fusion of live performance and cinematography, humour and tragedy, past and present, sets the precedent for a new future of theatre. It proves that the artistic and experimental potential of theatre is limitless.
Sunset Boulevard is at the Savoy Theatre until Saturday 6 January 2024.
Tickets from £20.00 are available via the Savoy Theatre website.
Edited by Georgia Gibson, Theatre Editor.