Let’s talk briefly about the characters and plot in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Tony Award winning musical. Lord knows how the script made it off the cutting room floor nevermind found its way into an award ceremony.
The musical is the story of down-on-his-luck Hollywood screenwriter Joe Gillis (Danny Mac), who stumbles upon the mansion of faded silent-film star Norma Desmond (Ria Jones). Norma lives alone with her loyal-to-a-fault butler Max Von Mayerling (Adam Pearce). She’s effectively the Opera Ghost from Phantom of the Opera, but instead of torturing other people for love, she’s intent on killing herself over it.
She convinces Joe to live in her mansion/lair to help her polish and shine the film script she’s been working on while she’s been hiding away from the world. Joe agrees and is paid handsomely for his efforts. He inevitably ends up in a romantic relationship with the actress, who is twice his age, and Norma threatens to commit suicide anytime he tries to leave. Seriously, there are increasingly few scenes as the musical goes on where she’s not trying to commit suicide.
Meanwhile, Joe also continues to help Betty Schaefer (Molly Lynch), the fiancee of seemingly his only friend Artie Green (Dougie Carter), work on adapting an old story of his for the big screen behind Norma’s back. While doing this [spoiler], he also falls in love with Betty, and she with him, and they end up having an affair. This builds towards the inevitable confrontation which takes place at the climax of the musical.
The only problem with all of this? All of these characters are ridiculous, unsympathetic and incredibly dislikeable, which means by the time you reach the climax, you don’t much care what happens.
On top of all this, Joe Gillis, the man they’re all fawning over, is a monumental dickhead. He starts off as a sympathetic screenwriter and morphs into a monster, taking advantage of an older woman while also happily cheating on his only friend in the entire play.
Max meanwhile, at this point the only admirable character, then disposes of all credibility by declaring that [spoiler] he was once in fact Norma’s first husband - and now, still in love with her, stays around, apparently to chaperone the young men her way and serve her as a butler. Errrr, okay.
By the time finale arrives, we were less concerned about the fate of the characters and more glad to be rid of the lot of them. We are in genuine astonishment that this is the plot for what is described as one of the “all time great” musicals.
The cast too were emphatic, even if the roles they were playing were not. Each and every singing voice was on point and while the musical seemed scared to use the medium of speech instead of song, when often the former would have been more impactful, what was heard was impressive. Ria Jones and Danny Mac excelled, though again we felt the lyrics they were given by A.L.W were basic and unimaginative. Their enthusiasm and passion in their roles, as well as the outstanding orchestra, kept the performance engaging throughout.
All round then, a good job done by all who were hired to take Sunset Boulevard from the page to the stage in Edinburgh. It’s just a shame what’s on the page is so utterly disappointing.
Photos by Manual Harlan