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  • Writer's pictureAlex First

Sunset Boulevard, at Princess Theatre - 2 hours 40 minutes, including a 20-minute interval

To bastardise a popular expression, those flying closest to the sun shine brightest before they burn up.

 

That set of words could be the starting point for the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical (with book and lyrics by Don Black and Christopher Hampton) Sunset Boulevard.

 

Set in Los Angeles in 1949 and 1950, the villain is Norma Desmond, the biggest star in the days of silent movies and now a recluse.

Photos by Daniel Boud


She has all that money can buy, but little else.

 

She loved the adulation that was afforded her, but that was a long time ago and now for many neither her name nor her face rings a bell.

 

Friendless, her butler Max Von Mayerling is the only one who maintains the illusion of fame.

Into that environment steps a down on his luck screenwriter, Joe Gillis, who can’t even pay his debts.

 

After his car – which is about to be repossessed – breaks down, he lands up at Desmond’s mansion on Sunset Boulevard.

 

When she discovers he is a writer, she asks him to read a long script she has written.

 

She hopes it will be the vehicle to catapult her back to stardom, with her – of course – playing the lead role.

 

She prevails upon Gillis to give the screenplay a spit and polish.

In short, she inveigles him into her life and becomes more and more possessive of him. The consequences are catastrophic.

 

It is hard to believe that it was almost 30 years ago (1996, in fact) that we saw Debra Byrne playing Norma Desmond, opposite Hugh Jackman, at the Regent Theatre.

 

Now the pivotal part has gone to Sarah Brightman in her first theatrical role in almost three decades.

She made her West End debut in Cats and originated the lead in The Phantom of the Opera on both the West End and Broadway.

 

This new production about faded glory and unfulfilled ambition – at the Princess Theatre – retains the strong impact it had when I first saw it all those years ago.

 

The staging, beginning with multiple lace curtaining, is spectacular.

 

An opulent dark mansion interior set, complete with winding staircase, is a compelling centrepiece for much of the action.

The setting is enhanced by the evocative lighting and sound design, along with elegant gowns worn by Sarah Brightman in her role as Desmond.

 

Black and white projections of Gillis driving his car to Desmond’s home and her servant driving her to Paramount Pictures works a treat.

 

Slick choreography from Ashley Wallen and tight direction by Paul Warwick Griffin are other hallmarks of the piece.

 

With a powerful and enduring stage presence, soprano Brightman, who is noted for her wide vocal range, is suitably melodramatic.

 

With perfect diction, her vocalisation is often operatic, a sharp contrast to other cast members who adopt a conventional musical theatre tone.

Tim Draxl impresses in his representation of Joe Gillis, a rousing rendition of the title track immediately after interval being among his many highlights.

 

Ashleigh Rubenach has a delightful lightness of touch as the enthusiastic, pretty, young script editor Betty Schaeffer.

 

She is dating a friend of Gillis’ and is keen to collaborate with Gillis on a redo of one of his earlier screenplays.

Robert Grubb adds gravitas as Desmond’s undyingly loyal attendant.


The company numbers woven into the work are lyrical, colourful and skillfully executed.

 

Based on the 1950 Billy Wilder film of the same name, Sunset Boulevard, the musical, at Princess Theatre until 11th August, 2024, is potent and polished.

* Please note that Silvie Paladino fills the role of Norma Desmond on Tuesday evening and Wednesday matinee performances.

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