Reviewed by Jayne Wiggins
Sunset Boulevard the musical originally hit the stage in 1992, though this show seems to have been around for much longer. Based on the Billy Wilder 1950 film, the show was a collaboration of music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, and lyrics by Don Black and Christopher Hampton. Milton Keynes saw this show brought to life courtesy of the Curve production.
The story is of a writer Joe Gillis (played by Danny Mac), down on his luck and struggling to pay his bills in the ever competitive world of Hollywood. The female protagonist, Norma Desmond (played by the remarkable Ria Jones) is an aging movie legend of the silent era, unable to move forward in an age of sound. Her long serving butler – Max Von Meyerling ( played by the enormous voice of Adam Pearce) is later revealed as her original director who has also succumbed to the ravages of change in the industry. The three are brought together through desperation and loneliness as Joe Gillis runs from his debtors and accidentally arrives at the dilapidated house of Norma Desmond, who is burying her beloved pet chimp with the ceremony expected for a child.
Upon discovering that Joe is a writer, Norma forces her own script on him to read through. With no better offer, down on his luck and out of money, Joe accepts the job and the invitation to stay in the once grand home of the eccentric and mentally unstable Norma.
The set design was grand and elaborate, with a gothic staircase taking centre stage behind the backdrop of the Paramount Studio. I was greatly surprised to hear a live orchestra and a shout out goes to the amazing musicians, the live version of which can never be underestimated in the role and orchestra plays in bringing the theatre to life. The cinematics which were flashed onto the backdrop took the audience back to an era of silent movies where it was believable to imagine the once glorious Norma in her full splendour as the character sang the impressive ‘With One Look’. If her appearance with a dead chimp had not already cast her as slightly unbalanced, her rendition as the silent movie clips were played in the background, certainly let the audience know that this lady was not giving up her past easily!
The audience follows as Joe slowly becomes trapped by the often suicidal Norma. From a fun loving risk taker, he is quickly entrapped as Norma threatens to kill herself just as he is trying to leave her. Joe’s friends would assume that he is living the life he wants with a very affluent lady, in her Miami home with pool, free clothes and food. However, the audience sees how trapped he is and we watch as Norma becomes more jealous.
The story finally starts to take a twist when Norma’s script calls her back to the studio she calls home. Thinking she is to make a comeback, she is protected from the truth by her ever faithful butler when he discovers that the studio only actually want her vintage car! As Norma is planning her comeback, Joe is accidentally falling in love with his best friend’s fiancée Betty. Betty is summoned to Norma’s house when Norma suspects that Joe is in love with her, and told of Norma and Joe’s relationship. Betty is shocked and runs out which causes Joe to pack and try to leave.
The show comes to a shocking conclusion as – unable to live without him – Norma shoots and kills Joe. Her insanity is complete as the police come to arrest her. Seemingly confused by the situation Norma is combative until her faithful butler asks to escort her himself. He persuades Norma that she is back in lights, on the silent screen, before adoring fans, as she sings her final lament.
The vocals in this show were spectacular. Ria Jones has a powerful, authentic voice. Passionate and melancholy, angry and sad, she played the part of an eccentric aging star perfectly. I thoroughly enjoyed her performance. Danny Mac was a convincing Joe, with a superb voice and a carefree, yet life worn attitude as the entrapped writer. But my greatest surprise the voice of Adam Pearce as Max Von Meyerling. His range from an earth shaking baritone to the high tenor was mesmerising to listen to.
An amazingly dark musical which did not shy away from mental health, failing movie stars, murder and love cheats. A must see as an antidote to the forthcoming festive season!
Tickets cost from £20.50 to £67 (plus £2.85 transaction fee).
Sunset Boulevard is at Milton Keynes Theatre from 28 November to 2 December 2017, for more information or to book tickets visit www.atgtickets.com/miltonkeynes or call the box office on 0844 8717652.
Milton Keynes Theatre, 500 Marlborough Gate, Milton Keynes, Bucks, MK9 3NZ