Glenn Close was ready for another close-up this week in London: 22 years after winning the Tony award for originating the role of Norma Desmond in Andrew Lloyd Webber's Broadway transfer of his 1993 West End show Sunset Boulevard, she has returned to play the delusional one-time movie star Norma Desmond, clinging onto hopes of a screen return (not, she insists, a comeback), now that the character is reportedly in her 50s.
Close may be perpetuating that delusion here — she turned 69 last month — but she brings the authentic whiff of real Hollywood glamour to a role that was originally created on the London stage by the Broadway diva Patti LuPone, and has since been played by other musical theatre veterans including Betty Buckley and Elaine Paige, as well as the movie and pop likes of Rita Moreno and Petula Clark.
She's the star attraction — you might say Fatal Attraction, given what's going to happen to poor Joe Gillis, the impoverished screenwriter who stumbles into her path when he hides his car in the garage of her Hollywood mansion from debt collectors who are chasing him. This isn't a spoiler: the show begins, as does the 1950 Billy Wilder film it is based on, with the sight of his corpse floating in her swimming pool, and rewinds from there to show us how he ended up there.
A dummy of his lifeless body is winched up from what's usually the deep orchestra pit of the London Coliseum (the 48-strong ENO orchestra instead shares the stage with the actors) and hangs over the stage throughout. It's a constant reminder of how the show will end, too.
Meanwhile, one of London's best musical theatre actors Michael Xavier brings him to edgy real-life: movie star handsome, to be sure, and with a strong, resonant singing voice, he also emerges from that pool at the start of the second act, still very much alive, wearing only skimpy swimming trunks. It's certainly a sight to bring anyone back to life who may have dropped off in the interval. But beneath the surface gorgeousness of the actor and the obvious attraction that the character must have for Close's Norma Desmond, Joe tragically knows his own place in the world: "It's the oldest story in the book/ Come see the taker being took/The world is full of Joes and Normas/ Older woman, very well-to-do/ Meet younger man, the standard cue," in co-writers Christopher Hampton and Don Black's sharp lyrics.
If this story has an irresistible and timeless fascination, it is also thrillingly served by one of Andrew Lloyd Webber's most grandly and lushly operatic scores. Lloyd Webber is surely the Puccini of his age — a composer he has long paid sometimes explicit tribute to, with 'Music of the Night' from The Phantom of the Opera resembling a note-for-note copy of an aria from La Fanciulla del West, last revived at ENO in 2014.
There's some ravishingly beautiful music here, and Close compensates in acting chops what she lacks in musical accuracy during the great arias With One Look and As If We Never Say Goodbye, while Xavier's rendition of the title song has exactly the right knowing dash and desperation. There's great tenderness, too, in the gorgeous second act duet 'Too Much In Love to Care' he has with Siobhan Dillon's Betty Shaeffer, the more age-appropriate woman he falls for.
"Close's big achievement is to treat the character not as a grotesque harpy but as a real woman who lives in a remembered past."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"Glenn Close’s triumphant performance makes you feel the shock of Sunset Boulevard as if for the first time..."
Dominic Cavendish for The Telegraph
"Close makes Norma Desmond, a silent movie star with a monster ego living in a dream world of glories past, completely believable... Mesmerising."
Ann Treneman for The Times
"Close makes sure the sun once more rises on a glorious Sunset Boulevard."
Patrick Marmion for The Daily Mail