Review: ‘Sunset Boulevard’

It might be surprising to discover, given the amount of dialogue present in Sunset Boulevard, that this particular piece of theatre is actually classified as a musical. It might be even more surprising to discover that Sunset Boulevard is the brainchild of Andrew Lloyd Webber — of all Webber’s works, Sunset Boulevard is unique for the amount of spoken dialogue it contains. Despite this, there are very few lines which are not underscored by some form of musical accompaniment, securing the role of Webber’s music in helping tell the tale of a ‘washed-up’ silent film star, Norma Desmond, and the impoverished Hollywood writer who accidentally finds himself working for the eccentric actress. A narrative that perhaps feels a little clichéd at times, the cast of Sunset Boulevard (which runs until Saturday, November 14, at the Oxford Playhouse), under director Glen Young, ensures the appropriate balance is struck between verisimilitude and theatrics.

Credit is first due, perhaps naturally, to the person responsible for initially crafting Sunset Boulevard, Andrew Lloyd Webber. A “master craftsman of the earworm”, as Glen Hady writes in his Diector’s Notes, Sunset Boulevard is full of “those repetitious musical memories” that remain in one’s head long after the music has stopped playing. Here, the music, be it vocal or orchestral, is an intrinsic part of the story being told. The orchestra’s handling of this music was particularly admirable – they maintained a controlled and convincing performance, a task not always easy with Webber’s preference for the dramatic.

Claire Cattel and Meg Asano in 'Sunset Boulevard' © Hannah Veale
‘Sunset Boulevard’ © Hannah Veale

The set is simple in design, an industrial-style staircase that acted as the interior and/or exterior for all scenes. The double-storey effect added an interesting dimension to the movement of the actors around the stage, while the use of period props ensured the set stayed historically appropriate, also allowing suitable “personification” for individual scenes.

For an amateur production by the Oxford Operatic Society (OOS), the professionalism of this cast and crew was another highlight. Sunset Boulevard is Glen Young’s first production as director, but previously working on eight productions with the OOS in different capacities have clearly placed him in good stead. From the cast, special mention is due to Susanne Hodgson, who places the title star, Norma Desmond. Hodgson’s handling of Desmond’s emotional fragility and frequently mercurial moods, in combination with her outstanding vocal abilities, was outstanding. Megan Asano, playing Betty Schaefer, also did an excellent job balancing Schaefer’s apparent enthusiasm, ensuring that she never ventured appeared disingenuous, a risk with such a perpetually effervescent character.

Guy Grimsley in 'Sunset Boulevard' © Hannah Veale
Guy Grimsley in ‘Sunset Boulevard’ © Hannah Veale

Stephen Pascoe as Max, and Guy Grimsley as Joe Gillis (the impoverished writer) were both commendable, especially during their scenes with Hodgson where the three took full advantage of their dynamic to play off each other. Throughout the production, the music (directed by Philip Purvis) and choreography (Stephen Piper) not only complemented the story, but often times allowed the audience to better understand the tale being told.

As to be expected of a production performing for an audience for the first time, there were a few minor mistakes, particularly with sound (microphones not being turned on quickly enough was an issue) as well as with the changing of set pieces – at times, this was a little clunky, and began to distract from the other happenings on stage. That being said, these were not major issues, by any means, and I suspect they will be ironed out as the week progresses.

Finally, if the above is not enough to convince you that Sunset Boulevard is worth seeing (and I would really stress the cast alone will make this worth your while), then the clever use of vintage animation to narrate part of the story is another feature which added to this production, and which made for a unique means by which aspects of the narrative were relayed quickly, without causing unnecessary breaks in the story’s flow. Overall, this was a solid effort by the Oxford Operatic Society, and I would encourage all of those who are “ready for their close-ups” to make the trip to Oxford Playhouse this week.

Ashlee Beazley

‘Sunset Boulevard’ runs at the Oxford Playhouse until Saturday 14th November; for more information and to book tickets, please visit their website.

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