Watermill - Sunset Boulevard
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Watermill - Sunset Boulevard

9th July to 30th August 2008.

From Newbury Theatre.

Los Angeles, 1949. Joe Gillis, an aspiring writer, is down on his luck. Running away from his creditors, he stumbles into the Sunset Boulevard mansion of silent movie star Norma Desmond, now well past her best-before date but with dreams of a film renaissance with her screenplay for Salome. Joe is reluctantly persuaded to stay with her and get the screenplay into shape, so she can send it to Cecil B de Mille.

Joe is seduced by Norma’s money and lifestyle; she, lonely and desperate, pins her hopes on Joe as her partner, in bed as well as in business. Add to this Joe’s friend’s fiancée Betty, who also falls in love with Joe, and you can see it’s all going to end in tears.

There are powerful performances from Ben Goddard and Kathryn Evans as Joe and Norma. Goddard plays Joe as a good guy, confused by what’s happening and wanting to do the best for Norma and Betty. Kathryn Evans handles the whole range of emotions – anger, elation, despair, hope, love – with great sensitivity. There’s strong singing from both of them, again with lots of opportunity for emotion from Norma in The Perfect Year, probably the best-known of the Lloyd Webber songs, and As If We Never Said Goodbye.

The strong cast of actor-musicians included Laura Pitt-Pulford as an alluring Betty and Edward York as Norma’s factotum/minder Max.

The set was very effective, with mist-shrouded palm trees giving way to a spiral staircase which revolved to reveal a pipe organ. However, the smallness of the Watermill’s stage, although ingeniously used to full effect by director Craig Revel Horwood, became a problem when the music at times drowned out the singing.

Sunset Boulevard may not be one of the great musicals, but the pathos of the performances from Ben Goddard and Kathryn Evans makes it a memorable evening.

PAUL SHAVE

From the Newbury Weekly News.

If Sunset Boulevard is the place “where they always keep the score” Craig Revel Horwood and Sarah Travis get ten out of ten for this latest actor/musician production.

It is a mammoth story, so full-on that it packs the Watermill with emotion and sound and the audience are caught up in the lives of those on stage.

A revolving spiral staircase and glittering palm trees stand in front of a dominating picture of a silent movie star for the story of Norma Desmond, ex-queen of the silent screen. Unable to believe her day is past, she writes a script for her return (“I never say ‘comeback’”) persuading Joe, a young scriptwriter, to help her.

Driven by pity and the fact that he’s broke, he does so, but finds himself entrapped as the deluded, fragile ex-star falls in love with him.

The radiant Kathryn Evans’ performance as Norma is a triumph as she pours her heart and soul into everything she sings. She excites - not the emotions from A to B of Dorothy Parker - but from A to Z, chief among them admiration for the lady’s talent.

Ben Goddard is superb as Joe, torn between his friends, the brilliant company of actor/musicians inhabiting the movie studios, his pity for Norma and love for Betty (Laura Pitt-Pulford).

Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s music, arranged here by Sarah Travis, highlights the moods, a single plucked string or exuberant glorious playing both capturing the sense of impending heartbreak and requiring the cast to learn two and a half hours of music - an outstanding achievement.

In spite of the inevitable tragedy, the vibrant action includes elements of fun and if you’ve never seen someone dancing the conga whilst playing a double bass, this is the moment.

There are gems in the dialogue too – Joe says “I have suits, she has hope” for in this poignant story even lighthearted moments have a concealed twist of heartache.

Once again Craig Revel Horwood and this dazzling cast have given their audiences an extraordinarily memorable evening.

In the talkback Craig revealed that there were plans for him and Sarah Travis to collaborate on bringing to life an older show.

“We can tell honest and truthful stories in this place,” he says.

Can’t wait.

CAROLINE FRANKLIN

From the Sunday Times.

Norma Desmond is still big, it’s just the theatres that got small. The Watermill is a tiny space compared with the sprawling LA mansion that swallows Norma, the faded star, but full credit to the director, Craig Revel Horwood (of Strictly Come Dancing fame), for using that to his advantage. What we get is a small, smoky stage, dominated by a spiral staircase from which Desmond can arrive and depart. This is Sunset Boulevard stripped down — or as stripped-down as Lloyd Webber on Hollywood will allow. The twist here is that the cast is also the orchestra; seated on the edge of the stage, they play their instruments when they’re not singing, a feat of co-ordination from Horwood and the musical supervisor, Sarah Travis. Meanwhile, Kathryn Evans makes a vulnerable Norma and Ben Goddard a tortured Joe Gillis. Things are never as cynical or as grotesque as in the film — maybe the dimensions of the Watermill require something more human, or maybe it’s just the usual effect of a swooping, sweeping Lloyd Webber score in which sentiment always prevails — but this isn’t some meek little musical. With so many instruments and voices in such an intimate space, it makes for a powerful evening. It’s hardly nuanced, but nuance is rarely a musical’s first port of call. For aficionados of the lord, it’s full throttle and full satisfaction.

LOUIS WISE

From the Guardian.

Two stars
Andrew Lloyd Webber's 1993 musical was not his finest hour; the production is best known for its backstage dramas and the loss of several leading ladies. This actor-musician revival, directed by Craig Revel Horwood, makes a case for the show, as long as you accept that Lloyd Webber's vision of lush gothic madness has a cosiness entirely absent from Billy Wilder's 1950 dark, twisted cinematic masterpiece.

Aided by Sarah Travis's terrific musical arrangements and Diego Pitarch's spiral staircase design - which makes it feel as if music and mist are always swilling around the crumbling Hollywood mansion of the former silent movie star Norma Desmond - Revel Horwood tries valiantly to squeeze Lloyd Webber's fleshy, florid vision on to the tiny stage. As John Doyle has demonstrated time and again at this address, essential truths can emerge when big, blowsy West End shows are slimmed down to fit the Watermill stage. But the genuine emotion has to be there in the first place, and here Lloyd Webber's power ballads and camp drown out the quietly sincere. The more Kathryn Evans' Norma spirals into madness, the greater our urge to giggle.

It is a pity: if directed with more restraint, the full-throated Evans could have been a Norma with a genuinely ravaged soul. In her most compelling scene, she returns to the studios where Cecil B DeMille is shooting a movie, believing she is about to make a comeback. Greeting those whom she thinks her fans (but in fact have never heard of her), Evans' mixture of vulnerability and misplaced girlishness seems to make the years fall away from her haggard face.

At her best, Evans makes us believe that Norma has an inner life, which is more than I can say for Ben Goddard's Joe Gillis, who flits between desperation, greed, self-loathing and love with pretty much the same facial expression. Edward York could be more sinister as the Desmond butler, but Laura Pitt-Pulford could not possibly be more perky as Betty, the girl with her own Hollywood dreams.

LYN GARDNER 

From The Times.

Four stars
It has a car chase, a swimming pool and a crazy silver screen legend as its lead character. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical based on the classic 1950 Billy Wilder film feels like a lot of show for the Watermill Theatre’s little stage. This revival by Craig Revel Horwood (of Strictly Come Dancing fame) has to encompass the work’s grandiosity without the gargantuan ornate sets that furnished Trevor Nunn’s original 1993 West End production. Often, it successfully makes a virtue of intimacy and simplicity, bringing wit and humanity to a work susceptible to hollow spectacle, but the immediacy that makes it feel fresh also exposes the threadbare patches in the show’s fabric.

The opening musical motif - a swelling, minor-key theme that swirls around Norma Desmond’s crumbling mansion - is charged with anticipation. Strutting, percussive company numbers, buzzing with the babble of the cross-cutting voices of Hollywood moneymen and would-be go-getters, are thrillingly energised. They sound terrific in Sarah Travis’s stripped-down new arrangements performed by a cast of actor-musicians. The brass is sassy, the strings are lush and most of the singing is equally ravishing.

Even the furniture dances on a set, by Diego Pitarch, in which Norma’s spiral staircase revolves, a chaise longue spins over to become the sign of Schwab’s drugstore, a producer sucks on a fat cigar while playing the double bass and a piano keyboard stands in for the typewriter of Joe Gillis, the show’s screenwriting antihero. But with the actors trying valiantly to impose emotional intensity on to Don Black and Christopher Hampton’s book and lyrics, the thudding lines that muffle the sharper ones become unavoidably apparent, as do the score’s repetitiousness and syrupy excesses.

The star of the show, naturally, is Kathryn Evans as Norma, whose pop-eyed camp mannerisms and full-throated voice can fall away in a second, exposing a startlingly touching vulnerability. Evans embraces grotesquery, but the desperate longing that underlies her queenliest posturing or her most Medusa-like face-pulling peaks when she revisits the studios where she was so adored. As actors play out a scene in dream-like slow motion on the movie set behind her, she basks in the artificial light and in her own lovely delusion of continuing celebrity.

Ben Goddard as Joe could approach some of his numbers with more cocky insouciance, but he does suggest this handsome young opportunist’s self-loathing as well as his cynicism, his face expressive of mingled pity, guilt and resignation as he submits to Norma’s passions. His delivery of the title song is both boastful and bitter. He may be exploiting her, but he is also seduced by Evans’s dark glitter. And so, too, are we.

SAM MARLOWE