'Sunset Boulevard' review – Nicole Scherzinger headlines an electrifying, revolutionary revival

Read our five-star review of musical Sunset Boulevard, directed by Jamie Lloyd, now in performances at the Savoy Theatre to 6 January.

Marianka Swain
Marianka Swain

Is Nicole Scherzinger ready for her close-up? That’s the big question coming into Jamie Lloyd’s feverishly anticipated revival of Sunset Boulevard: whether the former Pussycat Doll can follow Patti LuPone and Glenn Close in playing the faded starlet Norma Desmond. Well, now we can stop wondering: Scherzinger doesn’t just handle the role, she devours it.

True, that’s partly because Lloyd’s electrifying, revolutionary production is so cleverly shaped around her – and her public persona. (I can’t imagine how it’s played on Rachel Tucker’s dates, but I’m eager to find out.) It’s a cunning way of bringing Andrew Lloyd Webber, Don Black, and Christopher Hampton’s mid-century Hollywood fable bang up to date.

So, when Scherzinger’s Norma discusses her planned comeback vehicle with the broke screenwriter, Joe Gillis, who has become her reluctant collaborator, she scoffs at his suggestion that one scene not feature her. Scherzinger knowingly directs the line “What else would they have come here for?” at her fascinated audience.

She has spoken candidly in interviews about how much she relates to Norma: she’s felt similar fears of becoming obsolete, after going from the height of fame with her sexy girl band to reality TV judging. Although she’s evidently still, at 45, a beautiful, vital woman – she even does the splits.

But that casting turns out to be a masterstroke. Similarly, James McAvoy starred as Lloyd’s Cyrano without a giant nose, shifting the emphasis onto those who unreasonably judged him. It’s plainly absurd that Hollywood has rejected Scherzinger’s Norma; the problem is the industry that builds up and casts out stars, wrecking their mental health.

Lloyd’s stripped-back, hyper-focussed production is pure psychological horror. The stage is filled with smoke, becoming an eerie, liminal space rather than a literal location: it’s as much about what’s happening in the minds of its tormented central pair, the delusional Norma and the disillusioned Joe. The black-and-white aesthetic nods towards noir, but the costumes (hoodies and knee socks) are youthful and contemporary.

There’s a brilliant use of handheld cameras and projections – adding to, not sacrificing, the theatricality. Norma’s creepily devoted butler Max suddenly appears, like Lurch, or the camera hones in on Joe and budding writer Betty as they fall for one another, even while surrounded by partygoers. It also feeds into the overarching theme of real life versus movies, and whether the latter should reflect the former or offer escape.

Scherzinger powerfully conveys Norma’s unhealthy dependence on the camera. When she visits a movie set and is hit by a spotlight, she bathes in it as though it’s life-giving sunshine. She tears into “With One Look” and “As If We Never Said Goodbye,” and though her voice isn’t terribly controlled (she blasts the low notes, wavers on the break, then gets softer, and swallows the lyrics), there’s a go-for-broke quality that somehow works. She hits the money notes with X Factor-esque triumph.

Tom Francis is a haunted Joe, as dead-eyed and cynical as the Tinseltown phonies around him (they become a monstrous chorus line, elbowing each other out of the way), until he finds a flicker of hope. Grace Hodgett Young is a determined and sweet-voiced Betty, while David Thaxton, as Max, blows the roof off with “The Greatest Star of All.” Hannah Yun Chamberlain stalks the action as a ghostly young Norma.

Fabian Aloise’s propulsive movement is excitingly realised by the dynamic company, and Jack Knowles’s feverish lighting lends real terror to the climax. Throughout, Lloyd walks a wavering tightrope between postmodern wit (a bravura sequence follows Joe backstage and out onto the street), in concert with the snarky, satirical book, and visceral emotion that makes Lloyd Webber’s gorgeous score, with modified orchestrations, soar afresh. This is a Sunset Boulevard for a new generation.

Sunset Boulevard is at the Savoy Theatre through 6 January. Book Sunset Boulevard tickets on London Theatre.

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Photo credit: Sunset Boulevard (Photo by Marc Brenner)

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