This extraordinarily lavish production makes the heart soar as much as the story and its characters breaks the audience’s heart.
While Sunset Boulevard is apparently not based on a true story, it is very easy to believe that it could have been any number of actors and actresses attempting to adapt to the new film industry and the era of ‘talkies’ – making a number of silent movie stars redundant in the process.
This is hauntingly highlighted in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s beautifully scored musical, based on Billy Wilder’s film and now brought to life once again in Nikolai Foster’s gorgeous production that sweeps the audience away through the toxic relationship between fading star Norma Desmond and struggling writer Joe Gillis.
On the surface of Foster’s production at first it is easy to mistake the production as a love letter to Hollywood and the power of the studios in the 1940’s and 50’s, but with each scene it becomes increasingly clear that there is an extremely nasty side to being involved in the industry that this production really makes the most of.
This is all showcased on Colin Richmond’s incredible set (one of the best touring production sets I have seen in a long time!), which really highlights the drama as well as the isolation that exists in Norma’s world. Everything is slick and smoothly run, making the production feel like a film itself as well as the enormity of the space giving it an operatic feel.
But of course, in order to make Sunset Boulevard completely convincing its two central performances from Ria Jones as Norma and Dougie Carter as Joe needed to be utterly convincing as a two people caught up in a toxic relationship. There is certainly no need to worry on this front.
Ria Jones completely dominates the stage as Norma, contrasting the character’s neediness and manipulation of Joe nicely with an appearance of generosity to make him stay. Every moment of her performance is utterly heartbreaking and convincing – not least her rendition of ‘As If We Never Said Goodbye’ which is absolutely breathtaking, while her final scene in which her mental state completely breaks down will haunt me for a long time.
In contrast to this, Dougie Carter as Joe the struggling writer caught up in this manipulative web is suitably charming and debonair – whose increasing frustration and desperation to escape generates sympathy from the audience. It is a performance that is compliments Ria Jones well, highlighting the dangerous game being played by both well. Both Jones and Carter expose each character’s unhealthy dependence on each other to great effect – as shown in Norma’s suicide attempt and Joe adapting to a life of luxury.
The orchestra, led by musical director Adrian Kirk, also deserves a lot of credit for bringing Andrew Lloyd Webber’s gorgeous score to life, really helping to draw out all the emotions of the characters and the story to full effect. The score dips and soars in all of the right places, adding to the film vibe that weaves throughout the musical beautifully – particularly during ‘Too Much in Love To Care’ and ‘The Perfect Year’ for example.
Sunset Boulevard plays out almost like an opera – filled with passion, drama and ultimately tragedy that is expressed so vividly through every element of Nikolai Foster’s production that it is difficult not be swept away by it all.
Overall, this is a high class production filled with plenty of emotional drama that the audience is swept along on the journey effectively. Brilliant work by all.