Comedy Theatre, London SW1
Opened 15 December, 2008

“I am big. It’s the pictures that got small,” declares former silent movie goddess Norma Desmond in Billy Wilder’s 1950 film and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 1993 stage musical version. Such a defiantly huge personality would seem an awkward fit for a production in the bijou Watermill Theatre near Newbury, which is so small that in its musicals the actors double as the orchestra. The most notable such staging was John Doyle’s revival of Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, which went on to the West End and Broadway. Now Craig Revel Horwood’s similar treatment of the Lloyd Webber has also made it to London.
The show has more room to breathe in the 800-seat Comedy Theatre (four times the audience capacity and many times the stage size of the Watermill), and the size of the space goes some way towards making up for Diego Pitarch’s perfunctory set: a wrought-iron spiral staircase, a chaise longue, a huge backdrop of silent-era Norma, and that’s about it as far as the ghosts of past magnificence go. Other corners remain cut: anyone who does not already know that the story begins and ends with the corpse of screenwriter Joe Gillis floating in Desmond’s pool will be hard pressed to glean as much from a couple of handrails and a sound-effect splash. Sarah Travis’s musical arrangements for the cast of 13 work surprisingly well, and once one accepts the convention there seems little odd in Gillis gesturing around Hollywood with his flute, or being given the brush-off by a double-bass-playing studio executive.
Kathryn Evans is excellently cast as Norma Desmond. Evans is not afraid to make herself grotesque, her eyes staring out from their rims of kohl, her mouth a crimson slash. She also possesses the musical firepower for the role, although occasionally the character gets the better of her and instead of belting she blares. Possibly she is trying to keep up with Ben Goddard’s Gillis, whose rendition of the title number is simply too furious. He gels well with Laura Pitt-Pulford as love interest Betty Schaefer, although their second-act kiss oddly raised a laugh on press night; as Desmond’s manservant and former director, Dave Willetts is less Erich von Stroheim than a Cherman-accented Boris Karloff. The show sets out to be efficient rather than spectacular, and succeeds.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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