[Press ticket provided in exchange for a review]
The way that many theatres have adapted to overcome the restrictions of a Covid-riddled world has amazed me over the last few months.
With online live streams and pre-recorded shows beaming straight into living rooms and onto all kinds of devices, we’re experiencing a whole new kind of theatre experience – often with the best seat in the house.
One of the latest shows to grace our screens is Curve Leicester’s Sunset Boulevard In Concert – At Home. We have the chance to watch this award-winning Made at Curve production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Sunset Boulevard in concert form until January – perhaps the perfect alternative if you’re not a fan of seasonal shows or the humble Pantomime (boo hiss).
I was invited to watch Sunset Boulevard at home on the night I finished work for Christmas – an ideal way to celebrate the break. I have a vague memory of watching the classic Billy Wilder film for a university film module – but, perhaps, fortunately, I’ve forgotten the majority of the plot, which means I got to enjoy all the twists and turns as the story unfolded!
Directed by Nikolai Foster, Curve’s version of Sunset Boulevard adheres to the original story. It’s set in 1940s Hollywood – but beneath the glamour of the film industry, the trials and tribulations of trying to ‘make it’ emphasise the harsh realities of being in the business.
One woman in particular knows all about the lengths people are willing to go to become a star.
One night, cash-strapped writer Joe Gillis (Danny Mac) has a chance encounter with has-been star of the silent screen Norma Desmond (Ria Jones) – and his life takes a curious and somewhat chilling turn, offering up a story of desperation, obsession and drama, trimmed with old-school glamour.
Perhaps it’s the fact that this production is based on a movie, or perhaps it’s the Hollywood-based storyline, but this performance is almost made to be filmed. This is where the streaming almost works in theatre’s favour: the close-ups and different shots really highlight the dramatic nature of the production and offer an intimacy that’s usually hard to come by in such a large-scale theatre. This isn’t a live-stream either, and so this gives the team much more freedom in terms of playing with effects and editing.
The very special thing about this production is its use of space. With the audience completely absent in-house, the cast and crew have the whole auditorium to themselves – the space is their playground. The story spreads out into the stalls, the balconies and even underneath the stage, creatively making the most of the room they have. There is no set – we are fully invited to imagine the extravagant home of Nora Desmond, diners and the streets of LA.
This is taken even further by the fact that you can see the film crew on stage in some of the shots. It really feels like a film set. Instead of the cameras remaining invisible, and the cast staying offstage while waiting for their scenes, they stay on screen and on stage for much of the show, and while it’s a little distracting at first, it becomes a really unique and clever element of the whole production.
The visibility of all the cast and crew throughout the majority of the production is also a wonderful way to highlight the invisibility of theatre workers throughout almost a year. It demonstrates how much work goes into the creation of a show like this, and how many people are involved – therefore emphasising just how many people are impacted when theatre closes. It’s a really lovely touch and offers a sort of silent and subtle celebration of theatre and the arts after an unbelievably challenging and heartbreaking year.
The only thing that didn’t totally work for me was the superimposed images over the film, which sets the scene for some of the different locations. I understood the intention, and in some ways it reflects some of the classic film styles of the time – but in some instances it makes it quite hard to see what’s going on and feels a little chaotic. But with the limitations of the staging, having no set, and the opportunity offered by the show being filmed, it’s a creative approach to ensuring that the scene is fully set for the audience.
The whole cast of course offer their very best performances – it’s clear to see they are delighted to be back on stage. Danny Mac’s Joe is smooth and suave, while Ria’s Norma is every inch the heartbroken, has-been star, intoxicated by her past glory. It took me a while to notice that, of course, the cast are all socially distanced – it wasn’t jarring or strange, and felt almost natural; the Covid-secure nature of the show is seamless.
Let’s not forget this is a musical, too – the singing is superb, and the songs are catchy in a truly Lloyd-Webber way. Being able to see the orchestra really adds to the classic cinema/musical feel and gives the show class that Norma would be proud of. It’s a 16-piece orchestra too – the largest to accompany a musical in the UK this year, which not only adds to the spectacle, but reiterates my previous comment about putting performers centre stage after a year of closures. The costumes are also simple yet classic and really sets the show in its place in history.
Curve’s Sunset Boulevard is a delight to watch – a covid-secure version of a classic, offering inventive escapism from the seemingly non-stop bad news. This show is a reminder of theatre’s resilience, creativity and eternally surprising adaptability. There is always a new way to tell a story, no matter how much-loved and how well-known it is – and no matter the restrictions, the story will always get told.
Sunset Boulevard In Concert – At Home is showing online until 9 January, and is priced at £20 per household. Visit Curve’s website for more information.