‘Sunset Boulevard’ goes Mulholland Drive in Jamie Lloyd’s wonderfully weird and audacious take on the Andrew Lloyd Webber hit. The Brit super-director dramatically deploys live video and erstwhile Pussycat Doll Nicole Scherzinger to stunningly bridge the gap between the dark comedy of Billy Wilder’s original 1950 film classic and the more earnest stylings of Webber’s 1993 hit (which has book and lyrics by Christopher Hampton and Don Black).
Let’s dive straight in with erstwhile Pussycat Doll and ‘X Factor’ judge Scherzinger. She plays Norma Desmond, a one-time silent movie star who has become a recluse in the age of talkies, but sees a chance of making a comeback when writer Joe Gillis (Tom Francis) takes refuge in her house.
The casting raised eyebrows because Norma is a big, juicy, complicated role previously performed by musical theatre heavyweights, and while Scherzinger does have a stage CV, she is mainly known as a pop star and celebrity.
In the show’s ballsiest stroke, Lloyd leans into this. Scherzinger gives an unexpectedly unsettling performance as a woman hollowed out by the fading memories of her glory days, a nightie-clad wraith, a madwoman in the attic. She seems barely there when Tom unexpectedly turns up at her mansion But she springs to life in front of the cameras that relay live footage to the big screen. None of the other characters are able to see them, but in a meta move – one of many in the show – Norma is drawn to them like a moth to a flame, exaggeratedly pouting and vamping away. And while Scherzinger is good-looking, the extreme close-ups are not flattering: with Jack Knowles’s superb lighting she looks old, distorted, even inhuman at times.
It’s an incredibly gutsy thing of Scherzinger to do, especially with dancer Hannah Yun Chamberlain on hand to explicitly play the role of a young, beautiful, silent Norma. There’s something thrillingly kamikaze about her full-on embrace of the insecurities of the ageing star.
She can also sing with staggering power, and for reasons I can’t get into here, dances a very mean robot. She does have her limits as a performer: she doesn’t engage naturalistically with the people around her, and has less control over her voice than her castmates. But this all works. She is separate, stilted and strange, just as Norma should be.
It’s hard not to fixate on Scherzinger, but it’s a terrific cast all round. In many ways it’s Francis who actually carries the production – his turn is a lot more ‘conventional’ than Scherzinger’s, but the production can’t just be wall-to-wall weird. He’s wonderful as the jaded, seen-it-all writer – finding the humour in the role but also taking it seriously enough to stop Lloyd’s production from imploding under the weight of its own arch absurdity. Newcomer Grace Hodgett Young is particularly excellent as Betty, Joe’s love interest-slash-shot at artistic redemption. She radiates a winning conviction in the power of Hollywood that contrasts with Norma’s cracked, moribund belief in only herself.
Really, the show is the triumph of Lloyd and his creative team. From a purely technical perspective this is just stunning, making astounding use of live video: shout out to video designers and cinematographers Nathan Amzi and Joe Ransom. From the delicious faux opening movie credits sequence onwards, the monochrome footage relayed onto the back of the set is magnificent: it looks great, like a living film noir, but also they seem to have eliminated the latency between live performance and feed, a genuinely groundbreaking achievement.
That’s a nerd point, but the second half begins with a sequence so jaw-dropping that it’s difficult to imagine anyone won’t have their minds blown, as a live video feed tracks Francis as he sings while wandering around backstage before strolling out into The Strand, still singing, and eventually reentering to carry on the show. Is it live? I think yes, but the fact you question how it could possibly have been carried off is part of the fun.
Credit also for Soutra Gilmour’s spare, monochrome set design and costumes and Fabian Aloise‘s brilliantly spare choreography, which makes excellent but wilfully minimalist use of the dressed-down ensemble, saving them for a couple of taut, punchy setpieces.
Is ‘Sunset Boulevard’ a good musical? I don’t really know the answer to that. It has some great songs (‘New Ways to Dream’, ‘Sunset Boulevard‘), but it’s more accurate to say that Lloyd’s production simply stops you caring about the tonal discrepancy between film and musical than actually finds a way to ‘fix‘ the show.
But as a piece of live theatre this is truly awesome stuff. Jamie Lloyd has been one of our best directors for a long time now, but for me this feels like a landmark for him, a perfect synthesis between the gleeful, gory showmanship of his earlier work and the more challenging artiness of his recent stuff. The pictures may have gotten small, but theatre has rarely felt so alive with possibility.