**** (4 out of 5 stars)
Billed as 'the theatre event of 2016' the ENO and GradeLinnit's semi-staged production of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Sunset Boulevard has made headlines for the comeback, sorry, 'return', of Hollywood icon Glenn Close who makes her West End début in the role of faded Norma Desmond. It's familiar territory for the performer who first created the role in the LA Première and subsequent Broadway production back in 1994, for which she won the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical. Flash forward to 2016 and Close has returned to her 'people out there in the dark' for the second in the London Coliseum’s annual musical theatre concert productions.
Director Lonny Price has grappled with the challenges of presenting one of the most notoriously over-staged musicals in history in a new format, which manages to be both a visual and auditory feast. Placing the glorious 48-piece BBC Concert Orchestra centre stage, in many ways they become the star of the piece, highlighting the stunning qualities of Lloyd Webber and David Cullen's original orchestrations. There is no pretence of being a concert performance, instead it's an all-singing and all-dancing affair, complete with energetic ensemble fuelled by Stephen Mear's jaunty choreography that punctuates Lloyd Webber's complex ensemble numbers such as 'Let's Have Lunch' with a period charm and boundless spirit.
Price uses the confines of the set-up to his advantage, but allows areas of new exploration, for example the use of young Norma haunting the characters and walking the stage as a visual metaphor for the glorious past. Perhaps overused, it's never too clear who is conjuring the vision, and would be clearer if only seen through the eyes of Max, Norma's first husband turned enabling servant. Relying heavily on projections for the trickier moments including The Car Chase, Journey to Paramount and Betty on the Road, there are sparks of originality within the staging that hint at a deeper production waiting to get out.
Unlike the original, the single unit set withdraws behind the performances, allowing the music and acting to rightfully soar in an entirely new way. It's an ingenious design by James Noone – a skeletal frame of staircases that allow both Norma's mansion on Sunset and the Hollywood back-lot to be realised and framed in an effective yet stunningly simple way. Impressive lighting design by Mark Henderson helps change the location but remain true to the semi-staged format as billed.
Returning to a role in which you've achieved great acclaim over two decades ago is certainly brave, and Close embraces the challenge fully. It's a haunted experience for many involved, and whilst the supporting cast around her bring a distinct freshness to their roles, it's obvious that Close is the draw. Gone are the iconic turbans and Anthony Powell's numerous costume changes – Norma remains a sight to behold, but the semi-staged format reduces her outfits to a streamlined handful.
There's a sense of serendipity in Close's performance, that offers a deeper and somewhat more brutal look at the both the role within the musical and the wider treatment of the Hollywood machine. Her command of the stage is incomparable, and her acting offers notes of desperation, vulnerability and isolation alongside the ghastly overblown pantomime which Norma requires.
Never known for her singing, her acting always carried her through the role and continues to do so here, with the songs significantly lowered to suit her vocal range. You miss the glorious heights of Patti LuPone or Betty Buckley, but whilst she may not have the money notes, Close's performance somehow transcends her weaker musicality. Instead she acts the Lloyd Webber torch songs which include the standards “With One Look” and “As If We Never Said Goodbye” and remains clear of cliché, feeling every word of Don Black and Christopher Hampton's often shaky lyrics. She drags the songs back into their sharp context and finds honesty in her delivery that has evaded many previous performers in the same role.
Michael Xavier excels as writer Joe Gillis, barely leaving the stage and handling the majority of the score and recitative-like moments, acting as narrator whilst his dead dummy body hovers over the auditorium much like the chandelier in Lloyd Webber's most successful hit. Sporting tight trunks for the title number distracts somewhat from the punchier and more acerbic lyrics that justify his character, but Xavier manages to manipulate and massage the audience despite his character's unlikeable qualities.
Siobhan Dillon makes a beautiful Betty Schaefer, bringing the bookish charm of Nancy Olson alongside a soaring soprano that delivers the money notes her female co-star sadly lacks. The duet “Too Much in Love To Care”, may be a distraction from the central plot but is gloriously delivered and provides one of the evening's most tuneful moments.
Whilst the structure and book of the musical succeeds by matching the Billy Wilder original almost word for word, Lloyd Webber's score proves his undeniable ability to write for sustained dramatic performance. There's a symphonic charm to the music that develops major themes, recapitulating motifs and developing smaller sections into some of his finest material. Whilst history tends to judge the work as repetitive, within the context of the ENO under the baton of Michael Reed the show becomes a performance of true operatic proportions, and a thoroughly memorable theatrical event.