And this time will be bigger / And brighter than we knew it,' warbles the faded silent screen star, Norma Desmond, when (in the deluded belief that she can make a comeback) she pays a return visit to Paramount Studios. With the revamped version of Lloyd Webber's Sunset Boulevard that has just opened, it's more a case of this time being darker and tauter than we knew it, and, by virtue of that, a great deal better.
Having seen Sunset, mark two, when it was first unveiled in Los Angeles last December, I find myself in the unique position among British theatre critics of being able to offer a comprehensive Which? guide to the trio of Normas and Joe Gillises who have played the part. Comparisons, as Shakespeare says, are odorous, but we can clear the air quickly over the playing of Joe, the young down-on-his- luck screenwriter Norma lures into her fatal web. John Barrowman, who now takes the part in London, is easily the best. With a kept-boy pout that he strives to disown with scowls of self-reproach and thwarted decency, he skilfully conveys the moral ambivalence of the character, a would-be idealist tempted into cynicism and bad faith. He also sings better than his forerunners.
With Norma, the picture is much more complicated. Betty Buckley, her new London incarnation, begins magnificently, her rendition of 'With One Look' showing off the full range of a voice that can move from imperious harshness to quavery deliquescence or pounce on a word with lethal talons. Indeed, the best moment of the evening came in the way Buckley responded, utterly in character, to the storm of applause her performance of this song provoked. She allowed herself a gratified flicker of a smile, but then, as though they belonged to someone slowly emerging from a trance, the flung-out arms began to sink down in little stylised flutters. Like a gesture from a silent movie, this dumb-show as collapsing illusion gave us notice that, in the terms of this show, we were the ex-fans the superannuated star performs to in her mind.
For general acting, though, I much prefer Glenn Close, who opened the part in LA. Buckley's Norma goes through worrying bouts of normality, whereas with Close, whose Norma picked up weirder frequencies than either Buckley or Patti LuPone, there was an edge of derangement to everything she did that was by turns comic, tragi-comic, tragic. Buckley is often seduced by the music into playing its sentiments straight; Close showed you the virtues of sometimes playing against it. There are brilliant moments: the final insane descent as Salome is authentically disturbing, but it's arguable that the entirely new idea here of having Norma trip over in a sprawl and have to reassume mad majesty is executed so credibly that more than half the audience will go home thinking it was a genuine accident. This is somewhat self-defeating, artistically.
As I reported from LA, there is an altogether stronger coherence and fluency about this reworking. Trevor Nunn's production, which started sluggishly in London, now moves with a wonderful assurance and pace. From being too garish a year ago, the look is now positively Stygian, a dark Los Angeles of the mind, as Billy Wilder first imagined it. High-art types are also catered for, if momentarily, in the new song 'Every Movie's a Circus' which contains a sneaky allusion to James Joyce: 'Writers with pride don't live in LA / Silence, exile, and cunning / These are the only cards you can play.'
'Sunset Boulevard' is at the Adelphi Theatre, WC2. Booking: 071-344 0055
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