THEATRE / Bright lights in Sunset city

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The Independent Culture
IN BILLY Wilder's Sunset Boulevard, the city of light is a sullen place. It's full of wet pavements and dark rooms. There are scenes in which the only light shines through the keyhole in a door, or channels out from a projectionist's reel to X-ray Gloria Swanson's hair and turn her wrinkles into ditches. But darkness is banished from Andrew Lloyd Webber's Sunset Boulevard. Here the sun rarely sets.

Downtown Hollywood in Trevor Nunn's production is no longer muddied, but soaked in light. A golden glow bathes soda bars and studio gates and girls in summer frocks with push-up cups. Even Norma Desmond's chilly mansion glitters like the inside of a brass ashtray; while the forgotten screen goddess, in sequinned gown, sheds chips of light like a disco ball. In repose, her face is doused in flattering soft shades. This is the ageing diva on HRT.

None of this would matter - hey, it's a musical after all - if Lloyd Webber hadn't plonked his show so resolutely on Wilder's shoulders. As the film-maker said: 'The writers hit on a staggeringly good idea - they decided not to change it.' And indeed, the show uses the same dialogue (massaged by Don Black and Christopher Hampton), the same structure, even the same dead- man-in-the-swimming-pool opening shot. What it doesn't do is convey the same plot. Sunset Boulevard, the movie, is a creepy story about two grotesques: the scriptwriter who mortgages his soul and the silent star, Miss Haversham, in a house swap with William Randolph Hearst, who writes the cheque. Precious little real feeling is at stake; just human nastiness in a bucketful of melodrama.

But in the musical, we're talking warm human beings. When Patti LuPone, as Desmond, launches into 'With One Look', with one note she wins us over. Music brings sympathy, the possibility of internal life, which Lloyd- Webber keeps at a throb throughout with a careful use of reprise (note the underscoring echoes of 'Surrender'). And Patti LuPone's voice is wonderfully strong, youthful, rich with hidden reserves, which makes a mockery of the character's exclusion from the talkies. Her key ballads all boil down to love songs - 'As If We Never Said Goodbye' is directed at Paramount Studios, but could just as well be sung to an old boyfriend - and, until the end (when she reveals her 'real' balding head), she seems a perfectly adequate 'older woman'. Such, too, is the power of melody that when she and Joe Gillis (Kevin Anderson) sing the bitter- sweet duet 'The Perfect Year' at the end of Act 1, you can't believe he doesn't love her back. In fact, the question is: how can she love him - even in his scenes with sweet scriptwriter-next-door Betty Schaefer (Meredith Braun), he has the sex appeal of a walnut.

Ironically, the best moments in the musical are when it parts company with the movie's ghost, when it gives up on claustrophobic intimacy and invites its friends in. In one number ('The Lady's Paying'), a team of men's outfitters arrive chez Norma, and Wilder's sinister tailor is replaced by an army of heel-clicking shop assistants. But, despite a promising rhyme between 'brochure' and 'kosher', it's just a little too camp for comfort.

This sort of tightly choreographed business, intricately screwed to the nuts and bolts of the action, works a treat, though, in 'Let's Have Lunch', the jaunty round-robin chorus ('We should talk / Gotta run / Let's have lunch') sung by a stream of studio producers, young hopefuls and hangers-on. It's cynical, but it's fun. Inside this tribute to Wilder's hammed-up house of horror, there's a sassy, upbeat Hollywood biopic straining to get out.

Making the most noise in The Mountain Giants, Pirandello's final, unfinished play in Charles Wood's new version at the Cottesloe, is another Norma Desmond figure - a prima donna actress in a dress as purple as her prose. At moments of high emotion ('I cry as a mother cries'), her voice soars to the heavens as she clutches her face or hurls herself in torment to the floor. And what do the other members of the cast do? Do they cluster round in sympathy? No, they laugh.

Ms Melodrama, or Ilse (an admirably high-falutin Sian Thomas), has happened with her troupe of 'theatricals' on Villa La Scalogna, a strange halfway house between the green room and the Home for Distressed Members of the Profession. Desmond Barrit, known to his compatriots as 'the magician', is in charge. With a wave of his velvet-clad arm, he plays havoc with his box of stage effects - lightning, animated props, disembodied voices - to test the powers of the imagination. Posturing and self-deception are banished, arguments about art and life thrashed out, his visitors left quailing in confusion. So many abstracts, so little time.

Pirandello is always baffling, which is the point really, but William Gaskill's fine production goes some way to outlining the problems, if not to resolving them. The last act, added by Charles Wood, is full of people explaining things to each other. When Spizzi (Joss Brook) says, '. . . never until now has this play been true', there's a uniquely satisfying moment when Ilse replies: 'Why is it true now?' It's the only time you get a straight answer.

Scott McPherson's Marvin's Room is a comedy of the ghastly. Alison Steadman plays Bessie, a middle-aged woman in a synthetic wig (sort of mahogany veneer) struggling to keep her father and aunt alive while herself dying from leukaemia. That's nothing: her father, Marvin, a white, skeletal shape through a frosted-glass wall, has had a stroke and suffers from semi-blindness, diabetes, a lost kidney . . . Her aunt (Carmel McSharry), a vision in the sort of peach Terylene trouser suit only available to the retired in Florida, has got over her 'constant pain' but only through electrodes in her brain. Bessie's sister Lee (Phyllis Logan), who comes down from Ohio in jeans'n'heels to see if her bone marrow matches, looks pretty ill, too - but it turns out the ghastly marks on her face aren't bruises but the side-effects of a degree in cosmetology.

Much of the piece, directed by David Petrarca, is as witty as an episode of The Golden Girls, but there's a lot more shouting. Steadman, purse tightly clasped, is a figure of patience unrewarded and Logan is wonderfully brittle as her estranged sibling. There are plenty of holes for sentimentality to seep through, but for the most part the tears are kept at bay. At one point, Lee tells her disturbed son how her feelings for him 'are like a bowl of fish- hooks' and for a moment it looks like he might give her a hug. Instead, he hurls his bucket of Coke (they're at Disneyland) across the floor. Later, when Steadman finally cries out how frightened she is, her hands flailing in anguish, her sister reveals an instant of indecision before embracing her. There's no room for weepy feelings with so much embarrassment in the way. And besides, the whole scene takes place on the Baby Bear bed in Disneyland's Lost Children's Hut.

Three triangular relationships prove the perversity of love and possession in Edmund White's Trios. Three tales are told, from three historical periods, interconnecting as the characters leap in and out of costume and each other's arms. Different times, same old behaviour. Directed by Simon Usher, and well performed by Robert Landon Lloyd, Kelly Hunter and Charles Edwards, the play starts off slowly and ends bleakly. Above all, it demonstrates the truth in the old saying: bad luck comes in threes.

'Sunset Boulevard', Adelphi, 071- 836 9578. 'The Mountain Giants', Cottesloe, 071-928 2252. 'Marvin's Room', Hampstead, 071-722 9301. 'Trios', Riverside, 081-748 3354.

Irving Wardle is on holiday.

(Photograph omitted)