Unbelievably, I had never seen sunset boulevard until attending it this week at The Marlowe Canterbury, and I wasn’t even sure if I knew any of the songs. It really was a treat going to see a classic musical with no idea what to expect. If you’re in the same boat as me, what you should expect, however, is nothing short of perfection.
The musical tells the tale of Joe Gills, a young, not terribly successful writer, who, while being pursued by debt collectors, stumbles across Norma Desmond’s mansion. Norma is an “ageing” star, once famed for her beauty and incredible talent, but having reached the grand old age of 50 (eye roll), is no longer wanted by the industry or by the young men who used to fawn over her. Unable to deal with her fate, and haunted by the memories of her earlier years, she tries to relive her youth by entrapping Joe, both to help her write her new play in which she is the star, and also as her lover. As her grasp on reality diminishes, and Joe’s prospects of success decrease, the harsh realities of stardom and Hollywood reveal themselves in a dramatic and emotional finale.
This production is amazing in every way. Danny Mac of Hollyoaks and Strictly fame is a truly brilliant Joe. I had no doubt of his dancing or acting ability but knew little of his vocal prowess – and there was nothing to worry about. He brought emotion and depth to every dialogue scene and his pitch-perfect solos were something to be applauded. I am not sure I would still be singing “Sunset Boulevard” had this second half opening number not been so incredible.
Meanwhile, Ria Jones as Norma was both horrifying and captivating.
Not only were her vocals amazing, but she brought to the role a truly believable, while also harrowing, element of madness and desperation, perfectly portraying a person living on the border of reality and insanity. The emotion she injected into her version of “with one look” was truly moving.
The surprise of the show, who almost stole it for me, was Adam Pearce as Max. I don’t want to spoil the story for anyone who hasn’t seen it, but his role in the show is an odd one. When the audience first sees him, one presumes he is no more than a butler, but as the story unfolds, it is revealed that he is so much more than that. Pearce does a great job of slowly unravelling his part, gradually dialling up the emotional attachment he has with Norma. As he unfurls his role as a fierce protector, his deep baritone voice brings gravitas and authority to the part and is nothing but a joy to hear. I would love to see him in something else where he gets more opportunity to show off his voice.
The rest of the cast must not be forgotten.
The ensemble were all wonderful and, despite complicated, busy group numbers, every one of them shone. The set was not something which I expected to see in a touring production. The lavish set, ingeniously designed by Colin Richmond, complete with visual effects and projections of cars going past on the street and silent films rounded off this perfect production
Finally, Adrian Kirk leads a phenomenal 16 piece orchestra – the only way to hear this kind of music is live!!
And now for a brief rant about older actors on stage and screen. The pressures on actors are incredible and this musical (and, prior to that, the film of the same name by Billy Wilder), shows that perfectly, albeit in a rather caricatured fashion, in a somewhat before-its-time way. Actors must look perfect at all times, on and off screen, they must be clever, have “reasonable” political views (but not too forcefully). They must provide emotion on command, hide difficult emotions when in public, show dignity, not come across as self obsessed and do all this while watching as younger “more beautiful” people come through the ranks, forcing them into ancillary roles – the evil stepmother, spinster aunt or teenagers frumpy grandmother. It takes someone quite special to be able to work their way through this torrent of demands without having a nervous breakdown or suffering bad press.
Alongside that, the majority of successful actors/stars are likely, at some point, to have only the memories of fame and worship having been cruelly forgotten by the industry and, worst, will be “ring of shamed” by some awful magazine or another as they’re spotted, unmade-up, shopping in Tescos.
Over the last few years, there have been more films and stage, shows featuring the older generation and specifically older women.
It is important that we see older women the media. Men get to age and continue working but as soon as a woman gets older, chooses not to have some work done to artificially extend their “youthful look” they disappear. Meanwhile, the rest of us “norms” feel increasingly self-conscious as we age, but see nothing but perfectly sculpted, smooth-skinned, contoured-to-within-an-inch-of-their-lives in the media. Sunset Boulevard brings this to the fore and shows us how important it is to have older women in the media, but also shows how awful it is for those who have been forgotten and the impact that can have on them. Rant over…
The sun may have set on the two leading characters’ dreams but this show will continue on with success for a lot longer yet. If you have the chance to see this production with its current cast, jump at it!
Running in Canterbury until Saturday 21st April and then on tour until 28th April
Tickets for Saturday’s performances can be found at https://marlowetheatre.com/
Tour dates: https://uktour.sunsetboulevardthemusical.com/
Music – Andrew Lloyd Webber
Book and Lyrics – Don Black and Christopher Hampton
Based on the Billy Wilder Film
Musical Director – Adrian KirK