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Sunset Boulevard in Concert at Home | Review

I couldn’t help raising a smile last year when the Almeida Theatre in London put on The Duchess of Malfi, a Jacobean revenge tragedy, as their Christmas production. The Curve Theatre, or simply Curve to its staff and regular patrons, always leaves it to other venues in Leicestershire to hold pantomimes, though they have in recent years gone for seasonal musicals like White Christmas and Scrooge the Musical. It makes their choice to put on Sunset Boulevard an unusual one for a Christmas show – although there are New Year’s Eve celebrations as part of the narrative, it’s still fundamentally rather sad. If there’s any humour to be found in it, it’s dark, which makes this production is a remarkably relevant one for our times.

Sunset Boulevard - Ria Jones (Norma Desmond) - Photography by Marc Brenner
Sunset Boulevard – Ria Jones (Norma Desmond) – Photography by Marc Brenner
Then, as now, the entertainment industry is on its knees. Sheldrake (Kristoffer Hellström), a producer at Paramount Pictures, is justifiably stressed out. Joe Gillis (a hugely charming Danny Mac) is skint and is thinking of quitting the industry altogether, perhaps to (whisper it) retrain in something else. Gillis’ good friend, Artie Green (Dougie Carter) finds himself out in Arizona on a film project gone seriously awry. Okay, it’s not quite as bad as 2020 – the cinemas were at least fully open in 1949 – but watching this cast sing lines in ‘This Time Next Year’ such as, “By this time next year I’ll have landed a juicy part” and “We’ll have nothing to fear, contracts all signed, three-picture deal”, one wonders if any acting was required from the company in expressing such hopeful aspirations for the year ahead.

Then there’s the pertinent subject of mental health. When Gillis, who is partly convinced and partly ordered to stay at Norma Desmond’s (Ria Jones) mansion, looked after by her butler, Max von Meyerling (Adam Pearce, whose dulcet tones are nothing short of sublime, and, when appropriate for the character, suitably terrifying), he complains that his whereabouts are all too frequently questioned, demanding to know if he is meant to be a prisoner at home. Lockdown, anyone?

Desmond herself has, in her stubborn refusal to have anything to do with talking movies, been socially distanced from the outside world for the best part of twenty years, and it shows. Readers with long enough memories will recall how Ria Jones ended up leading the 2017 Curve production of Sunset Boulevard in the first place: the year before at the London Coliseum, she understudied Glenn Close in the English National Opera’s semi-staged concert production of the same show. With Close indisposed due to a chest infection, certain members of the audience booed when the announcement was made, but those who stayed largely gave Jones a standing ovation at curtain call. An entire UK tour, which picked up awards in London and Manchester, and then this filmed concert version of the same production, resulted from that.

Here, excellent use is made of the entire Curve auditorium – and why not, seeing as Government restrictions denied the venue the opportunity for audiences to attend the show in person. The camera angles show almost everything, including the sixteen-piece orchestra, apparently the largest to accompany a musical in Britain in 2020. The theatrical/cinematic hybrid of this streamed show allows for some excellent backdrops and moving images to accompany proceedings.

It wasn’t an entirely perfect stream on the night I saw it – the first-night jitters (or, rather, tech gremlins) crept in occasionally, but even this was akin to a theatrical experience, in which anything could go wrong on the night. The cast are singing to the camera rather than projecting to the back row of the upper circle, and they have adapted well to the fresh challenges a production of this nature presents. I enjoyed it all so much I might well book to see it again. A magnificent achievement, showcasing how British theatre can continue to shine even in a global pandemic.

5 Star Rating

Review by Chris Omaweng


Set over a turbulent New Year’s Eve in 1940s Hollywood, Sunset Boulevard is a gripping tale of romance, glamour and obsession. Curve’s Artistic Director Nikolai Foster will once again direct this production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical masterpiece, which features book and lyrics by Don Black and Christopher Hampton and is based on the 1950 film by Billy Wilder.

A 16-piece orchestra, supported by music licensing company PPL, will bring the musical’s score to life with musical supervision by Stephen Brooker. Set Designer Colin Richmond, Video Designer Douglas O’Connell and Choreographer Lee Proud will also rejoin the production team.




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