THEATRE / Breaking out of silents into song: Paul Taylor eyes up Andrew Lloyd Webber's production of Sunset Boulevard

SHE MAY be a faded legend of the silent screen, long supplanted by the talkies, but in Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical version of Sunset Boulevard Norma Desmond is certainly wired for sound. 'With one look I put words to shame / Just one look sets the screen aflame' belts out Patti LuPone, throwing her eagle profile this way and that. To show that a silent film star could also be a dab hand with dialogue is one thing (as happened with Gloria Swanson in the original Billy Wilder movie), but to turn her into a soaring-voiced diva begins to look (or rather sound) a bit of a self-defeating paradox.

Take the scene where Norma revisits Paramount Studios on the mistaken assumption that they are interested in her cranky 'Salome' script. Just as in the Wilder film, the star, grandly seated on DeMille's set for Samson and Delilah, scowls as a boom microphone passes overhead. This piece of equipment is the enemy that put paid to her era and career. But in the musical she then gets up and throbs her way through such a loud, plangent show-stopper ('As If We Never Said Goodbye') that you feel she and the new technology were born for each other.

A musical Norma throws up contradictions that a merely talking one doesn't and the main effect is that it converts her from the creepily arresting case-study in the film (the victimising victim of changing fashion) to that much more conventional and soft-centred figure, the operatic tragedy queen. One of the best moments in Trevor Nunn's slightly sluggish production happens, uncoincidentally, to be one where we get the strongest sense of what Norma's celebrated dumb-show must have been like. It's New Year's Eve and, in a split-screen effect, we're shown, in the bottom half, a party in a poky flat crammed with mambo-ing film- struck young hopefuls; above, in desolate contrast and as though in one of her own silent movies, we see Norma, the stranded has-been, mutely emoting and making maximum use of the staircase in her weird baroque-temple-cum-movie-house of a mansion.

In terrific voice, Patti LuPone has most of the star quality required and is magnificently harrowing in the final deranged staircase-descent. But when, towards the end, we're shown the pathetic plucked-chicken scalp that has been concealed under Norma's wigs, it feels a cheat, for Ms LuPone is blatantly a woman very much on the right side of her prime. This may be why Kevin Anderson, anodyne and pretty-boy in the role of the out-of-work screenwriter who becomes her reluctant gigolo, has problems projecting the requisite impression of squeamishness and self- disgust at her crazy demands.

Swanson's pop-eyed, alien, antique quality (did this woman start in early motion pictures or in cave pictures?) came not from her age (early fifties) but from the unsettling sense that she was, to the life, the cultural throwback she was playing. This show is not to blame that it cannot reproduce that feeling nor the eerie, quasi-documentary quality Wilder achieved by using recognisable figures from the silent era such as Erich von Stroheim and Buster Keaton. A pity, though, that it fails to replace these elements with anything equally compelling, that gems from the screenplay are delivered as though being read from a dictionary of quotations, and that some of the staging may confuse people who haven't seen the movie. (The corpse face-down in the swimming pool at the start looks like someone who has collapsed while making a most unwise move across the conservatory roof.) Its deviations from the source are not all that inspired. The gigolo's romantic relations with the idealistic young scriptwriter (Meredith Braun) are so squeaky-clean and sexless here that they seem just as ungrounded in reality as his dealings with Norma.

Though I can't say I warmed to it, Lloyd Webber's score is damnably memorable - covering everything from tunes that seem to borrow from the poignant, phoney monumentality of silent movie music, to a cool-cat, brassy, overlapping chorus for the strugglers in contemporary Hollywood. The lyrics of Don Black and Christopher Hampton aren't overcrowded with wit or pointedness, but have their moments. Has Cecil B DeMille's epic dullness of mind ever been better skewered than here? 'Every girl in his chorus line / Is a genuine Philistine / They don't come off the shelf / I flew them in from Philistia myself.'

(Photograph omitted)

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