Sunset Boulevard at the London Coliseum - Review

April 11, 2016

Billed as the ‘theatre event of the year’ on the posters adorning the London Coliseum, it’s fair to say that Sunset Boulevard is the ticket to have in London right now, with Glenn Close reprising her Tony-award winning role from over twenty years ago. To add to the excitement, the musical comes with the orchestra of the English National Opera – the Coliseum is their residency after all – which means the music reverberates around the venue in spectacular fashion.

Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard is one of the most revered films of all time. Currently sitting at number 52 on the IMDb’s 250 Highest Rated Movies, it is a story that encapsulates celebrity – Joe Gillis is a struggling Hollywood screenwriter who owes money (or his car) to his debtors. Without a car in the City of Angels, you’re as good as screwed, so Joe loses the men on the road, driving into a mysterious driveway, which turns out to be the home of Norma Desmond, faded star of the silver screen. As the talkies came in, she bowed out, living a glamorous and expensive lifestyle only aided by her butler, Max. After Joe happens to let slip that he’s a writer, Norma latches onto him, believing that he is the key to her return to super stardom, putting him up in her mansion and plying him with goods. But surely Joe’s past will catch up with him?

Sunset Boulevard is a timeless story that gets better every time it is experienced. Personally, it seemed odd that this was a film that had been turned into a musical, but having now seen the spectacle on the London stage, the strangest thing about the production is that it has faded a little into obscurity before the triumphant announcement of the revival. For those not in the know, this is an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical with lyrics by Don Black and Christopher Hampton. Such names are sure to heighten the anticipation for those who are yet to have experienced it.

Upon arrival, the first thing that will take your breath away is undoubtedly the venue itself. The London Coliseum is a theatre that everybody should experience at some point and if opera or ballet isn’t your thing then Lloyd Webber musical might be just the thing! The production itself is presented in a resplendent manner, ably directed by Lonny Price, he behind the mega hit Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. The staging is comprised of two carefully constructed staircases, which criss-cross over one another, with the ENO’s orchestra housed beneath.

From the wings come the characters and other props, Michael Xavier’s Joe setting the scene for all that is to come. This is Hollywood in the forties; suave, sophisticated and full of splendour. The show tunes ring out from the get-go, before Glenn Close's Norma Desmond appears after a stunningly put together car chase. It may be simple – the two characters hold a light in each hand to symbolise car headlights – but it’s certainly effective with the stage enveloped in darkness. With Close’s arrival comes the first huge roar of the night; she needn’t do anything so much as take a step and the crowd were instantly cheering. It certainly set the tone for the evening.

With some stellar choreography from Stephen Mear and Wilder’s tonally pitch-perfect tale, this was always going to be a wonderful way to spend an evening. Xavier is a two-time Olivier nominated performer and it shows; he’s charismatic, wildly engaging and the consummate leading man. Though it is Close that garners the headlines – her face is all over the marketing material – the two of them together carry the show, with a superb ensemble to back them up. In the two main supporting roles, Siobhan Dillon and Fred Johanson, with a remarkable baritone of a voice, serve to ensure that the hype surrounding Sunset Boulevard at the London Coliseum is absolutely justified.

This is a show that has everybody involved performing at the top of their game. Although the set may seem sparse, James Noone’s staircases allow the subtle changes from a sound stage to a mansion with the simplest of alterations, whilst the costumes from Tracy Christensen and Anthony Powell bring you right into the historic vision of Los Angeles. The music is superb – though On the Road's notes are remarkably similar to She by Elvis Costello – and the acting is exemplary. This is undoubtedly one of the most enjoyable evenings to be had in London right now and if you can bag a ticket then we wholeheartedly urge you to experience the spectacle. The standing ovation for all involved lasted well over five minutes, which should give you some expectation of what to expect. Sunset Boulevard is event theatre and not to be missed; it is the perfect combination of cast, creative time and venue. Stunning.

For more information and to book tickets to Sunset Boulevard, visit the show's official website. Sunset Boulevard runs until 7th May 2016. 

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