Frank Wildhorn and Don Black’s score for this 2011 musical sounds exemplary. With consistently strong songs and smart lyrics, this is a show that can hold its head high. While not all the numbers feel as if they belong in a story about criminals – and the sense of time and place for these depression era degenerates isn’t convincing – there is barely a weak number to be heard.
The entire cast enjoys this solid material. The production has fine leads, with Frances Mayli McCann and Jordan Luke Gage taking the title roles. Given the stronger written part, Gage’s acting impresses. Director Nick Winston’s production is a quality affair. Although small, the venue feels appropriate for the show and the design from Philip Witcomb is neat, if far from lavish.
Problems arise with Ivan Menchell’s book and the characterisations here. Time spent on Bonnie and Clyde, looking at their motivations and insecurities, is rewarding. But secondary roles – Clyde’s brother and his wife, as well as a law man who holds a torch for Bonnie – are poor. The performers – George Maguire, Natalie McQueen and Cleve September – sound good, but the roles are written either too comic or too sincere. These issues are worse when it comes to the crime couple’s parents.
Such poor parts are an especial shame, since focusing on how others feel and are affected by Bonnie and Clyde is the show’s smart move. Taking criminals as your protagonists in any drama must be handled sensitively. This show generally avoids the danger, as aspirations for fame seem silly and both fall into violence in a convincingly chaotic fashion. If there’s a little too much sympathy for the gangsters, the show never leaves us in any doubt about how destructive they are. And it really does sound great along the way.
This is a Christmas treat for theatre lovers that, thankfully, is carrying on into the new year. Director Nikolai Foster’s production of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical is produced especially for a lockdown audience and has the clever idea of using all areas of the theatre for filming. Foster gives us a great show and makes you want to visit his venue at the same time.
Like all good revivals, Foster reminds us of the show’s strengths – in particular, what a sturdy piece of musical theatre Sunset Boulevard is.
The strong story, based on the Billy Wilder film, makes a drama of a former movie star, Norma Desmond, in later life. Sophisticated lyrics from Don Black and Christopher Hampton take us deep into the character and motives of Norma and her new beau, Joe. Lloyd Webber’s score is both adventurous and lush, and musical motifs powerfully build while stand-out songs are plentiful.
Them there eyes
From such a firm base, Foster benefits from a fantastic cast. Both Ria Jones as Norma and Danny Mac as Joe know these roles well, and it shows. The casting (David Grindrod) is superb: Jones looks great in a turban and them there eyes are perfect for the number With One Look. Mac’s matinee idol air fits the Hollywood scenario.
Jones is angry and serious – not easy with such a camp character. Mad, sad Norma is to be pitied for her “folly” and her “scrambled brain”, but Jones provides moments of imperiousness to confirm that Norma is a figure to be reckoned with. And she provides magic. When it comes to the power of the movies and imagination, the years slip from her face, and Norma becomes an innocent ingénue.
This is Mac’s show, though. Joe is a great role, a partial narrator (think Nick Carraway) who becomes a victim: his claim to be an observer of Norma – “watching her sunset” – raises questions from the start. Mac’s mix of his character as an “uppity hack” and “stony-hearted” is balanced by moments that show an ambition for an artistic career that hasn’t, really, disappeared. And Mac’s singing is simply wonderful.
Both leads are aided by superb foils. Molly Lynch’s Betty provides a perky love interest that is intelligent and complex for Joe. Adam Pearce’s bass voice is a knockout and his role as Max Von Mayerling is developed magnificently.
Ready for your close up?
There’s no way to not enjoy this show or these performances. But a reservation has to be raised about the filming.
Seeing the orchestra (performing from the stalls) and camera staff at work adds an element of theatricality – nice – but the editing is sometimes manic. Points of view syncopated to the score is fair enough. But too many cuts to different cameras make it hard to appreciate the work of choreographer Lee Proud (in my experience, that’s a shame). Split screens also confuse. Graphics overlaid on to the action are just unnecessary.
Such caveats fade when considering how Foster has used his theatre. Taking the action into the auditorium works well. Setting scenes ‘back stage’ makes for great moments. Posing Joe in a bank of seats, watching events, then joining in the action is a perfect reflection of his ambiguous role. And to have Norma alone in the circle for her entrance and finale is a stroke of genius.
For a filmed show, Sunset Boulevard makes you crave to get back into a theatre in 2021. And you’ve got to love that! There’s a sense of pride in this very smart-looking venue that makes me regret never having visited it. Given other strong work, such as My Beautiful Launderetteand What the Butler Saw, that Curve has shown during lockdown, a trip to Leicester might be my resolution for a sunnier 2021.
Let’s not be prudish – for the West End it’s essential to put bums on seats. Taking a lesson from its real-life subject – a nude variety show presented by the eponymous producer during WWII – there’s plenty of flesh on display here and scope for good old-fashioned smutty humour. At least in 2016, Mrs Henderson’s girls are given a voice, although the exploitation of their naked bodies is glossed over as an opportunity for them to be extraordinary. And the show’s boast of bravely running throughout the Blitz provides predictable flag-waving sentimentality. Neither crowd-pleasing tactic is particularly edifying.
This is not, of course, the fault of the cast. And while Terry Johnson’s book is surprisingly leaden, his direction is good, as are a strong set from Tim Shortall and costumes by Paul Wills. Tracie Bennett and Ian Bartholomew are excellent leads as Mrs Henderson and her right-hand man, Vivian Van Damm. Entering the theatre business is a whim for her and he is Jewish – this seems to be all we need to know about them. There’s a sweet love story for Emma Williams, who leads a strong ensemble, but a general lack of emotional attachment to an assortment of quickly sketched characters. The biggest disappointment comes with a dreadful role for Jamie Foreman, a pointless narrator and comedian with dire jokes – a warm-up man who leaves you cold.
Indeed, Mrs Henderson Presents is a pretty frigid and calculated affair. Much could be forgiven if the songs were good but George Fenton and Simon Chamberlain’s tunes are mostly forgettable. The first half is particularly foggy and while things do pick up there’s really only one adventurous number – foolishly the only chance for Williams to show off a great voice. The real shock comes from Don Black’s lyrics, at times so banal that you start guessing which rhyme will come up next. Unforgivably, one song has lad, mad and bad in one verse. The performances on offer might mean the show should be a hit but the lyrics are merde.
Let’s face it, Stephen Ward is a terrible name for a show and, given that its eponymous subject ends shamed and committing suicide, it’s also an unlikely topic for a West End musical. But Andrew Lloyd Webber’s new work deserves the kind words received from critics. An adult affair, looking at the 60s Profumo scandal, the focus is on hypocrisy and injustice – on how revenge was meted out to Ward by the upper classes he once counted as friends.
The show’s credentials are impeccable. Lloyd Webber’s score lives up to his reputation and the book and lyrics are provided by Don Black and Christopher Hampton. This is a complicated story presented in exemplary fashion, with startlingly confident lyrics and efficient directing by Trevor Nunn.
The show rests on the lead and Alexander Hanson is terrific at conveying the complexity of this “man of many parts”. And Charlotte Spencer and Charlotte Blackledge (above with Hanson) depict the more famous stars of the real-life drama, Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice Davies, with depth. Secondary characters also satisfy: Anthony Calf is perfect as Ward’s fair-weather friend Lord Astor and there’s a tremendous turn from Joanna Riding as Profumo’s wife. It’s a lovely twist to see the betrayed minister’s spouse get to have her say.
The show isn’t perfect – rousing emotion has to wait until the end (Hanson again delivers) and this seems too late. Attempts at humour when it comes to both Keeler’s Russian lover and the police who frame Ward on a trumped-up charge are frankly embarrassing.
Stephen Ward has a quiet ambition. A concise, penetrating view of British culture, it scores many a hit. The scene of an upper-class orgy may raise eyebrows amongst Lloyd Webber fans but, sensibly, it doesn’t try to shock. There may be some Coco de Mer style accessories on sale in the foyer (a riding crop and silk blindfold) but humour is used well here. Another highlight is a song for The News of the World journalists, set to twist Keeler’s kiss and tell story, demanding she “give us something juicy”. Keller’s lyrics go further than the hacks are willing to print, but Lloyd Webber and his team don’t shy away from the explicit – even crudity is used intelligently in this smart work.