Thirty years ago I stood on The Strand in a queue for eight hours intent on getting my hands on early tickets for the first production of Sunset Boulevard. It was worth every minute to watch Patti LuPone bring Norma Desmond to life. The production was gorgeous in every aspect. Fantastic costuming, lighting and sets. And that iconic staircase. It was everything. It was theatre.
Sunset Boulevard for a TikTok generation
Based on the 1950s Billy Wilder film of the same name, it’s the story of faded silent movie star, Norma Desmond, who plans to make her great comeback to the silver screen with a self-written script Salome. A chance encounter with a luckless screenwriter sees Norma hire him to edit her garbled screenplay ready for submission to Cecil B. DeMille. Many setbacks along the way, Norma gets a call from the studios and is convinced she’ll be back in front of the cameras soon. But all they want is to do is borrow her vintage car. There is no happy ending.
This year, Jamie Lloyd has taken a crack at it. Known for stripping things back to the bone (chipboard sets in The Seagull), this is Sunset Boulevard for a TikTok generation. The costumes are minimal; the lighting is bleak and as for the set, well, there just isn’t one. The mainstream media seem to think they’ve found their new wunderkind, heaping praise on him for being bold and daring; but for me, this is just a case of The Emperor’s New Clothes. This approach to theatre has been done for years – just take a look at pretty much any production at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Financial constraints and impossible get-in times mean most end up looking like this.
The staging is very monochromatic. Stark white spotlights illuminate black and white costumes through a seemingly constant haze. Actors deliver lines straight out front, disconnected from each other. The gimmick is roaming camera rigs transmitting live close-ups to an enormous screen that swings in behind the action with annoying regularity. Isn’t it meta? A forgotten movie star who’s desperate to get back in front of the cameras and ‘ready for her close up, Mr DeMille’, is constantly on-screen in close up.
Which brings us to the casting of Nicole Sherzinger as Norma. There’s something of an emotionless flatness to her performance, much like the two-dimensional video projection which she persistently mugs to. Yes, she can sing, but it sounds like a pop star and not carrying the drama of a musical theatre heavyweight like LuPone, Close or Paige. It’s like she’s in a different show to the rest of the cast, leaving her co-star Tom Francis to do most of the heavy lifting as screenwriter Joe Gillis.
I have no issue with reimagining shows to find new meaning. Inventive directors have staged many a production I thought I knew well and opened my eyes to the possibilities within. This, however, left me cold. My only takeaway was that stunt casting rarely works.