Sunset Boulevard

Theatre, Musicals
3 out of 5 stars

Time Out says

3 out of 5 stars

Glenn Close is superb – if a little on the old side – as a fading screen goddess in Andrew Lloyd Webber's ho-hum musical

Glenn Close is so good in ENO’s semi-staged revival of ‘Sunset Boulevard’ that it almost feels rude to point out that a) like many later Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals, ‘Sunset Boulevard’ is not brilliant b) 69-year-old Close is definitely a bit old to play 50 year-old silent movie star Norma Desmond.

Webber’s sung-through 1993 musical is an adaptation of the classic Billy Wilder film of the same name, and represents one of the Tory lord’s first attempts to detox from the dementedly excessive rock operas of his ‘70s/‘80s pomp.

Though Webber turns in an elegant, haunting theme and though he’s not actually responsible for the book or lyrics, ‘Sunset Boulevard’ shares the malaise of many of its author’s works, in that the psychology of the characters often appears to have been devised by somebody who has never met other humans. 

Set in 1950, the musical follows deadbeat Hollywood writer Joe (Michael Xavier), who finds himself down on his luck and chased by mob creditors. He takes refuge in a random mansion on the titular LA street, only to discover it’s the dwelling of Desmond, a forgotten but fabulously wealthy star of the silent age who has gone somewhat nuts in her isolation. She has an unwieldy vanity project script she’s working on as a comeback vehicle; he offers to edit it to get him out of his financial bind; the two become lovers.

The trouble with Don Black and Christopher Hampton’s book is that twists that feel more nuanced and somewhat tongue-in-cheek in the film come across as clanging and bombastic here. The huge age gap between 38-year-old Xavier and Close doesn’t help either, because whereas in the movie William Holden and Gloria Swanson are reasonably credible lovers, this basically feels like watching a manipulative thirtysomething take advantage of a mentally ill old woman.

But all caveats accepted, the quality of the performances are top-drawer: Xavier has a delightfully rumpled charisma, but Close – who it should be noted originated the role on Broadway in 1994 – is a force of nature. Her very first number, ‘Surrender’, is such a tour de force that the show needs to stop to catch its breath after, and she injects such tenderness and lambent humanity into her solo numbers as to almost humanise the unhinged Desmond. The full orchestra under Michael Reed sounds absolutely wonderful on one of Webber’s lushest and loveliest scores. And director Lonny Price’s dimly-lit, film noir-ish semi-staging works fantastically well – it feel like the whole thing is set in a claustrophobic movie studio.

It’s a classy show all round, but Webberphobes may wistfully wonder what this once-in-a-lifetime assemblage of talent could have done with a better musical.

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