When the gunshot rang out half the audience jumped out of their skins. As the noise faded, a faint blue light appeared behind the gossamer-thin drape veiling the darkened stage. Behind this veil, bathed in a shimmering blue, appeared the silhouette of a man as if face down in a swimming pool. And so Sunset Boulevard begins.
Andrew Lloyd Webber’s smash hit musical, based on the 1950s film of the same title, is the tragic tale of misfortune, lust and desperation. The story follows down-and-out screenwriter, Joe Gillis, who in attempting to evade a group of thugs, ends up at the rundown mansion of the ageing former silent film star, Norma Desmond. Determined to make a comeback, Norma commissions Joe to revise a screenplay she has written, based on the tale of Salome and the Dance of the Seven Veils, in which she plans to play the 16 year old seductress. Despite the evident ridiculousness of the script, Joe agrees and eventually becomes Norma’s kept lover. But Norma’s increasingly possessive and unstable character is fuelled by the discovery of the romance between Joe and a pretty young script editor, Betty Schaefer. Her classic descent into madness leads to an inevitably tragic climax.
A famously elaborate play to stage, this production of Sunset Boulevard makes use of some wonderful set and light design by Denis Hutchinson, often using a clever interplay of light and colour and intelligent tricks to create a scene. The sound is also perfect – absolutely essential for a musical. The crazed ‘busyness’ of some scenes – with a lot of different characters dancing, milling about and endlessly chattering – is the perfect way to symbolise the competitive roar of the film industry, where everyone is always on the move and tranquillity is rarely achieved.
Against this backdrop Angela Kilian as Norma Desmond is phenomenal, with a brittle sensuality that oozes pain, desperation and madness. Her powerful voice is beautiful yet razor sharp, and her every gesture commands the stage in a way that makes it poignantly clear why Norma Desmond was such a great star of the silent movies. Jonathan Roxmouth, so often seen in a leading role, successfully pitches his jaded Joe Gillis to complement rather than compete with Angela Killian’s spotlight. His conflicting emotions are portrayed subtly yet powerfully, accompanied by very impressive vocals. As a pair, Kilian and Roxmouth create a whole that is more than the sum of its parts.
Bethany Dickson is a sweet and heart-warming young and ambitious Betty Schaefer. Although her voice is not powerful, it is pitch perfect and when combined with the vocals of her on-stage lover, becomes even more of a pleasure to hear.
The seasoned James Borthwick plays Norma’s dedicated butler, Max, whose presence is felt throughout the show, watching over his former wife and muse as she spirals downwards. Although Borthwick’s voice is deep and booming and his demeanour powerful, he later displays the deep compassion of Max’s character, and the fragility of a man who has lost everything of his former life and is struggling to save the only thing he has left.
The web of human deceptions – both conscious and subconscious – reaches a climax as Norma, dressed as Salome, gracefully descends the staircase to a mob of policemen and reporters who she believes are her adoring fans. Eyes closed, smiling and basking in the limelight, she reaches the bottom and utters the words, “And now, Mr. DeMille, I am ready for my close-up.” And with that, the stage is flooded with darkness.
Sunset Boulevard is now playing at Theatre on the Bay and runs until 4 January 2014.