Jamie Lloyd’s searing version of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Sunset Boulevard is the hottest ticket in the West End right now, and it’s not hard to see why. The avant-garde theatre director is known for his starkly original, stripped-back versions of well-known stories, having tackled everything from Chekhov’s The Seagull and Pinter’s Betrayal to Evita. But this revival may just be his biggest triumph yet. That’s largely thanks to a spellbinding performance from the show’s leading lady, Nicole Scherzinger, who takes on the role of the faded silent film star Norma Desmond.
Many who arrive at the theatre to see the show will already have some inkling of what Sunset Boulevard is about. Perhaps they’ve seen the original film from 1950, starring Gloria Swanson as the deluded former star. Or maybe they’re familiar with Glenn Close’s iconic Norma in the musical version from the 90s. Stylistically, Lloyd’s Sunset Boulevard couldn’t be more different. There’s no ornate staircase for Norma to sweep down here, no visual depiction of her Hollywood palazzo. Instead, Lloyd’s monochrome and baldly pared back production has almost no set at all.
That sparseness only serves to make the production’s stars shine all the brighter. Newcomer Tom Francis is excellent in the role of up-and-coming young screenwriter Joe Gillis, while sweet-voiced Grace Hodgett Young, who plays his girlfriend Betty, is also well cast. Veteran musical theatre actor David Thaxton lends an impressive glowering moodiness to Desmond’s butler and ex-husband, Max. But there’s no doubt that the audience is here to see Scherzinger. On the night I went to see the show there was an audible gasp when she first appeared on stage, lithe and cat-like in her clingy slip dress and bare feet.
Scherzinger steals every scene she’s in, a fact she’s all too aware of. “You can’t be in every scene,” young Joe tells Norma as they work on a script together. “Why not?” replies Scherzinger, looking out archly into the audience. “What else do you think they came for?” Any who may have questioned whether the 45-year-old former Pussycat Doll was too young and beautiful to play the role will have their doubts firmly quashed. Scherzinger brings a searing sense of rawness and vulnerability to the part, while no one can deny her vocal abilities as she belts out the show’s two showstoppers, With One Look and As If We Never Said Goodbye.
Though Lloyd’s set may be minimal, he adds an extra layer to his production through the clever use of hand-held cameras, which zoom in on members of the cast at key moments. Supersized close-ups of their faces are then projected onto a huge screen behind them, adding a cinematic edge to the show. Through this unforgiving technique, which highlights every pore, Scherzinger’s usually picture-perfect features appear crazed and distorted. In a feat of truly astounding trickery, at the opening of the second act the cameras follow Joe backstage, then out onto the Strand as he sings the show’s title act, all of which is somehow filmed live and beamed back onto the screen in the Savoy. It’s a real moment of theatre magic.
Despite the almost claustrophobically intense atmosphere Lloyd creates, there are moments of levity too. Scherzinger’s Norma is genuinely funny, leaning into some of the campier elements of the role. She also brings more than a few Pussycat Dolls-esque dance moves to the stage, even sinking into the splits at one point. And as the cameras roam around backstage, we catch a few witty glimpses: a life-sized cardboard cut-out of Andrew Lloyd Webber in one corner, a scene of Gloria Swanson as Norma on a flickering television set, a photo of the full Pussycat Dolls line-up taped to the mirror in Scherzinger’s dressing room.
As for the show’s dramatic finale, it’s likely you’ve already seen the photos of Scherzinger drenched in blood at the curtain call doing the rounds on social media. I won’t spoil the ending, but suffice to say it’s a suitably powerful climax. Anyone who comes to see this production will understand why it’s one of the most talked about theatre shows currently on the London stage. On Sunday, Scherzinger scooped the Best Musical Performance gong at the Evening Standard Theatre Awards for her Norma, while Lloyd took home the Milton Shulman Award for Best Director. Something tells us those are just the first of many prizes for this stellar show.
‘Sunset Boulevard’ is playing at the Savoy Theatre until 6 January 2024.