THEATRE / Sunset is on the rise again

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
SETTING ASIDE my aversion for glittery West End openings, there was something obscurely wrong about Tuesday's line-up of limousines inching along the Strand from Trafalgar Square, ready to decant their fragrant occupants at the doors of the Adelphi Theatre for the new version of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Sunset Boulevard.

It was not until Betty Buckley's first big number, 'With One Look', that the penny dropped. As she ended with her arms and well-nourished voice high in the air, this love-song to the public was greeted with a storm of applause. To this Buckley - still in character as Norma Desmond - responded by slowly dropping her arms and gazing mistily out front. What was it this silent-film idol was seeing?

Not Ivana Trump and Co anyway. Those eyes were fixed on the anonymous multitudes who had made Norma Desmond a star. The audience has a role in this show, and it is not one that calls for evening dress. Likewise, the setting. John Napier has done a great job in creating Hollywood locations, from the set-within-a-set Paramount scenes to Desmond's stellar palazzo fit for mad King Ludwig of Bavaria. But why restrict design to the stage? Why not confront the million-dollar dream factory with a flea-pit auditorium where people do their dreaming?

As a newcomer to Sunset Boulevard, I cannot say how this show compares with the original 1993 version. Whatever the changes, the musical emerges from its structural overhaul and wholesale recasting as a sleek, purring vehicle of extreme elegance and unstrained power. Trevor Nunn's production rivals the film camera in its focus and scenic agility; and when it does resort to film sequences - usually a recipe for theatrical suicide - they are firmly subordinated to the stage spectacle.

In Buckley's Desmond, the arrogance of confident musicianship combines with the arrogance of character. Her voice has a tensile strength that easily spans long phrases, encompassing every dynamic nuance from floating lyricism to metallic attack without breaking the melodic line. Buckley discovers playful, even attractive sides of the character within the image of a long-preserved immortelle withering in the light of day. She also pays Desmond the compliment of making her a good actress: so that, however encapsulated she may be inside her own legend, when she declares her love for Joe, her ghost-writing gigolo, she seems to mean it. It is a marvellous performance, doing equal justice to the living monster and the celluloid waif.

Of Norma's two menfolk, John Barrowman's Joe acutely conveys the tormented swagger of a hungry artist on the point of selling out; while Michael Bauer's Max presents the image of a ramrod-limbed butler that leaves you utterly unprepared for his ascents into yearning falsetto evocations of the past.

When this musical first appeared there was some surprise that Christopher Hampton's book stuck so closely to Billy Wilder's screenplay. That, it seems to me, is what justifies the work. The plot is like an

unchanging melodic line: detached and sardonic on the screen, engulfingly emotional when transposed to the stage.

Musically, Sunset Boulevard is about the power of memory; it is Lloyd Webber's compositional autobiography. Norma's mansion is the home for the feverish romantic agony of his later shows. In Schwab's Drugstore, where the Hollywood hopefuls congregate, it reverts to his youth in the lilting eight- bar call-and-response numbers of Joseph - the most attractive music he ever produced, written for fun and with no thought of the first-night limos. Towards the end, Max picks up one of these innocent little songs and translates it into the idiom of experience. It makes a sad sound.

The horror of Patrick Hamilton's 1929 thriller, Rope, is one peculiar to this century: namely the discovery that culture and higher education may enhance the human capacity for cruelty. Had Hamilton's two undergraduate murderers not had the advantage of reading Nietzsche, along with enjoying Beethoven on the gramophone, then their friend Ronald would not be lying dead in a chest, as proof of their superior powers of daring. It is a tricky play. The plot suggests a piece of intellectual baiting for the philistine public; but, as usual with Hamilton, a pop outline contains an elitist texture - and it is the poet Rupert, decadent aesthete par excellence, who emerges as the avenging instrument of common moral outrage.

In Keith Baxter's fine production the implied homosexual pact between the two killers is made fully explicit; pointedly showing that, while the lordly Brandon (Tristan Gemmill) organises the crime, it is the jittery Granillo (James Buller) who takes the lead in their erotic strangulation games. It also strengthens their supposed bond with Rupert (Anthony Head) as a possible co-conspirator to see him bestowing fond kisses on his hosts at the macabre party. With no slackening of tension, the production is dense with wider associations as jazz- age and public-school manners mingle with fascist dandyism in the dance round the coffin. Head plays the limping Rupert as a sweet-faced boy who turns even the most waspish lines into a caress. You can believe in him as a poet: he can make Hamilton sound like T S Eliot. More to the point, his reversal from apathetic melancholy into ferocious action, reveals the character as one of Hamlet's most notable descendants.

That is more than can be claimed for the hero of Julia Bardsley's adaptation of Hamlet, in which the Prince, along with the remaining Elsinore household, figure as puppets manipulated by a conjurer and his ostrich-plumed assistant. This is a deconstruction exercise in Bardsley's expressionist manner. It is aimed at the Young Vic audience, who might well get more out of such a gleeful experiment, with a teenage Horatio and balloons at Ophelia's funeral, than from a reverential plod through the text. The show has its moments; and the puppet replicas of the acting company are beautifully made. But when the cuts in the text obliterate not only characters and metre but also narrative sense, the operation becomes self-defeating. Even new audiences want to know what's going on.

'Sunset Boulevard': Adelphi, 071-344 0055. 'Rope': Wyndham's, 071-867 1116. 'Hamlet': Young Vic, 071-928 6363.