Sunset at the Watermill Reviews

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Sunset at the Watermill Reviews #1
Posted: 7/15/08 at 11:26am
http://www.whatsonstage.com/index.php?pg=207&story=E8821216122874&title=Sunset+Boulevard+%28Newbury%29

4 stars from whats on stage

As the film noir opening sequence segues into a brassy full-on meet-the-band parade, this dazzling reworking for actor/musicians takes you straight to the heart of its dark story of Hollywood hopefuls and has-beens. On Diego Pitarch’s atmospheric set, ingeniously dominating this small space with a spiral staircase evoking the gloomy grandeur of the Sunset Boulevard mansion where lonely Norma Desmond nurses her neuroses, director Craig Revel Horwood and musical arranger Sarah Travis seamlessly collaborate to produce great story telling.

Travis’s ravishing arrangements thrillingly fill the small space – and your headspace – much as erstwhile silent film star Norma Desmond’s face once filled the screen. In this musical based on a film, the actor/musicians provide the audience with the intriguing experience of engaging with a movie score and the musicians playing the notes.

The marriage of instrument and actor, all skilfully choreographed, provides an integral quality for each character and Travis provides texture and variations of pace that enhance the mood and move the action. Brass dominates the antics of the young wannabes, its brittleness emphasising their febrile neurosis as they make a show of wielding their big shiny instruments. Plangent strings underscore tender moments, deepening the emotion, and strike warning notes to add to the suspenseful scenes.

Actor/musicians usually create a terrific collaborative ensemble and these well-cast performers are excellent in their individual roles too. Ben Goddard is uncomfortably convincing as struggling screenwriter Joe Gillis, whose life is changed forever when he stumbles by chance into the mansion – and the clutches – of the ageing siren, Norma Desmond. As he succumbs to the material temptations she offers and surrenders his principles, he actually manages to look sleeker and fatter – and he brings a big voice to his central role of narrator/protagonist.

Kathryn Evans’ Norma is by turns touching and terrifying, making it easy to see how Gillis becomes entrapped. Her singing catches the fragility of Norma’s sanity, bordering on hysteria, but staying rich and true – this Norma could have easily made the transition to the talkies! Edward York gives Norma’s devoted butler, Max von Mayerling, a creepy sincerity, working with logical inevitability towards his climactic revelation.

It’s invidious to pick out so few when all deserve praise, but Laura Pitt-Pulford is feisty and vulnerable as Betty, Joe’s would-be writing partner, already at twenty-two with twelve years as an aspiring child star behind her, as much a victim of Tinseltown as Norma and Joe.

This has to be as good as this musical gets – although Lloyd Webber’s development of the same few portentous themes with rare variation or light relief and even rarer middle eights becomes relentless and I came out humming the arrangements rather than the tunes.

- Judi Herman
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re: Sunset at the Watermill Reviews #2
Posted: 7/15/08 at 11:29am
This is getting amazing word of mouth. What are the chances of a transfer or tour? I dont like the actor/musician combo but I do love Sunset Blvd!
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re: Sunset at the Watermill Reviews #2
Posted: 7/15/08 at 11:35am
I hate the actor/Musician thing thats why im avoiding this one
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re: Sunset at the Watermill Reviews #3
Posted: 7/15/08 at 11:38am
Plus the fact its sold out, Yeah me to, novelty has well worn off.

Having recently watched the dvd of the (in my view poor) Broadway revival of Company, I just think its time it was given a rest.
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re: Sunset at the Watermill Reviews #4
Posted: 7/15/08 at 11:39am
Its the singular reason I'm not going to Newbury to catch this.. If, and I doubt it very much, it gets a West End season then I would love to Ms Evans do Norma!
A young actress with Noel coward after a dreadful opening night performance said to him 'Well, i knew my lines backwards this morning!'' Noels fast reply was ''Yes dear, and thats exactly how you said them tonight'!'
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re: Sunset at the Watermill Reviews #5
Posted: 7/16/08 at 8:36am
The Stage has given it a rave!
A young actress with Noel coward after a dreadful opening night performance said to him 'Well, i knew my lines backwards this morning!'' Noels fast reply was ''Yes dear, and thats exactly how you said them tonight'!'
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re: Sunset at the Watermill Reviews #6
Posted: 7/17/08 at 5:50pm
THEATRE 2019: ASPECTS OF LOVE**** FRANKENSTEIN (Paris)**** AN ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE**** COMPANY***** [title of show]**** CAN CAN*** THE CEREAL CAFE**** BAD GIRLS**** RAGS***** LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE***** FOLLIES***** ROMANCE ROMANCE**** THE MARVELOUS WONDERETTES*** LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE***** QUEEN OF THE MIST**** SIX** THE PRICE***** MAGGIE MAY **** CALENDAR GIRLS** MAN OF LA MANCHA**** WAITRESS***** FANNY AND STELLA***
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re: Sunset at the Watermill Reviews #7
Posted: 7/18/08 at 4:27am
I saw this on Saturday, and here are some of my thoughts.

I'm one of those crazed Sunset fans who flies around the world to catch the various productions. How does this one hold up? All in all, very well. I mean, I still miss the hovering mansion, but we'll never see that again - ever. So I won't go on about it.

This production is all about claustrophobia, and the tiny theatre and the small stage certainly add to it. But especially during the second act, you can almost feel the tension filling the air, the desperate characters getting themselves further and further into a situation which they know will end with tragedy. And that's what I thought this production did very well - focusing on the characters' feelings and emotions. For instance in "Too Much in Love to Care", where Joe and Betty confess their love for each other. Instead of this being the straight forward love song it used to be, it is now tragic and heart wrenching. Joe and Betty are so desperate, so angry at their own feelings, and how they just don't fit into their lives at this moment. Excellent stuff.

Also, I loved how in "As If We Never Said Goodbye", the actors and the crew at the Paramount lot keep filming the scene they are working on, while Norma pours her heart out. It's all in her mind, and the Paramount people don't really care about her, so why should they stand around her and applauding her, like they did in previous productions?

The whole actor-musician thing was a bit strange at first, but after a while I stopped noticing it. I did, of course, miss some of the fullness and "umph" in some numbers, especially the overture, but other than that it worked very well. The only person on stage who didn't play an instrument though, was Kathryn Evans.

Now, Kathryn Evans' performance did disappoint me a little bit. I'm not sure how I should interpret her performance. It seemed to me that she didn't really do that much acting. She relied too much on her eyes and her singing voice. There was nothing wrong with the latter, by the way. Pure gold, and plenty of it. Evans actually looked a lot like Gloria Swanson, when I think of it. The face, the hair, the dresses. Very interesting - although maybe not intentional?

To me, the best part of the whole show was the New Years party scene. As you may or may not know, this was done as a "split screen" in some of the earlier productions. The lower half of the stage showed the action in Artie Green's flat, and the uper half showed what was going on in Norma's mansion. At the Watermill, this was done superbly: after about one third of the scene at Artie's, the music comes to a halt, and the overture starts playing as Norma walks slowly across the stage. Her eyes look dead, yet she is very determined in the way she moves. Norma disappears, and the scene and the "festive" music continues. About a minute later the same thing happens as Norma once again appears, this time together with Max, who pours her a drink. These moments on stage are very difficult to describe, but they sent several chills down my spine.

I could actually go on forever, but I'll spare you. The production was very good, although I didn't quite like Kathryn Evans's portrayal of Norma Desmond. The production delved boldly into the darker sides of the story, but I'm sure they could have made it even darker and grittier.
"Curse you, Lady Glyde!"
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re: Sunset at the Watermill Reviews #8
Posted: 7/18/08 at 5:36am
Thanks for the Great review
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re: Sunset at the Watermill Reviews #9
Posted: 7/18/08 at 3:10pm
Yes - thanks for the review. I'm looking forward to seeing it even more.

Did they use the changes written for the Broadway production or as it is recorded on the original London production?

(interesting pyjamas in your avatar as well!)
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re: Sunset at the Watermill Reviews #10
Posted: 7/18/08 at 3:50pm
They used the changes written for the Broadway production, including "Every Movie's a Circus" and Norma closing the show singing "With one look I'll be meeeeeeeeeehhhh".

There were a few small changes here and there, though. But I think only someone who knows the show in detail would notice them.

Oh, and I did take a photo of the set during the interval (shame on me), but to be fair to the Watermill I think I'll wait until the show has closed before posting it. Maybe I would even break the terms of agreement on the forum?

And thanks - Spider-man does whatever a spider can!
"Curse you, Lady Glyde!"
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re: Sunset at the Watermill Reviews #11
Posted: 7/18/08 at 4:16pm
How were the downsized orchestrations? It's Sarah Travis again, right? There's a lot going on in the score, and I'm really interested in seeing if she's managed to capture the best stuff again.
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re: Sunset at the Watermill Reviews #12
Posted: 7/18/08 at 5:30pm
Yes, Sarah Travis did the orchestrations. I did really miss the fuller sound that the first productions presented, but in most of the numbers I felt quite comfortable with what I was hearing. Hearing the beginning of the overture played with nothing but a violin was a shock, but at the same time it felt very right. Very intimate.
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re: Sunset at the Watermill Reviews #13
Posted: 7/19/08 at 10:02am
You can actually see the set in the picture shown with this review from "The Stage".

http://www.thestage.co.uk/reviews/review.php/21293/sunset-boulevard

And the Times online says:

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/arts/main.jhtml?xml=/arts/2008/07/16/btsunset116.xmlhttp://www.telegraph.co.uk/arts/main.jhtml?xml=/arts/2008/07/16/btsunset116.xml

And Charles Spenser of the Telegraph says:

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/arts/main.jhtml?xml=/arts/2008/07/16/btsunset116.xmlhttp://www.telegraph.co.uk/arts/main.jhtml?xml=/arts/2008/07/16/btsunset116.xml


But Flight0017 of the Spidey suit, since you have seen so many different productions (and I appreciate comparison is difficult when this is on the tiny scale it is), I would love to know where you reckon this stands relative to others.

Am hugely looking forward to it myself!
Updated On: 7/19/08 at 10:02 AM
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re: Sunset at the Watermill Reviews #14
Posted: 7/19/08 at 8:05pm
I'm not a huge fan of ALW's rather overblown musicals. But I've always really liked Sunset Boulevard ever since seeing the original West End production with Patti Lupone. I also saw - and enjoyed - the UK tour production. But Craig Revel Horwood, IMO, has taken this show to a new level. This is a GREAT production with far more subtlety and dramatic intensity than the original. His staging of Martin Guerre last summer was one of the two best productions of anything I saw in the whole of 2007 (along with Parade at the Donmar) and - apart from Kander & Ebb's The Visit at the Signature Theatre in Virgina, the Watermill SB is the best production of a musical I have seen so far in 2008.
THEATRE 2019: ASPECTS OF LOVE**** FRANKENSTEIN (Paris)**** AN ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE**** COMPANY***** [title of show]**** CAN CAN*** THE CEREAL CAFE**** BAD GIRLS**** RAGS***** LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE***** FOLLIES***** ROMANCE ROMANCE**** THE MARVELOUS WONDERETTES*** LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE***** QUEEN OF THE MIST**** SIX** THE PRICE***** MAGGIE MAY **** CALENDAR GIRLS** MAN OF LA MANCHA**** WAITRESS***** FANNY AND STELLA***
Updated On: 7/19/08 at 08:05 PM
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re: Sunset at the Watermill Reviews #15
Posted: 7/20/08 at 9:06am
I agree with you, Bob. It is a good production, with focus on the dramatic events that the four main characters get themselves into. For every production I have seen, the directors keep finding new elements to particularly the relationship between Joe and Betty. The portrayal of this relationship is perhaps the best part of the production at the Watermill. The relationship between Joe and Norma has sort of stayed the same in all the productions I have seen, yet I would love to see this explored further as well.
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#16
Posted: 7/21/08 at 4:40pm
Updated On: 1/22/09 at 04:40 PM
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re: Sunset at the Watermill Reviews #17
Posted: 7/22/08 at 10:23am
LePetitFromage: I'm afraid I only remember Kate Feldschreiber (Mary) playing the violin. I didn't really pay much attention to the instruments - which is probably a good thing for a show like this re: Sunset at the Watermill Reviews
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re: Sunset at the Watermill Reviews #18
Posted: 8/9/08 at 12:08pm
It was going to be interesting to see if an ALW musical would bear the scrutiny of a small-scale production and this one does very well. You notice the ropey bits of writing in the same way you do on the recording but there aren’t that many of them and this is one of the better musicals to have an ALW score. I don’t think the actor/musician concept added anything to the show in the way I felt it did with Mack and Mabel and was simply used as a device to squeeze a big musical into a very small and intimate theatre. The actors tended to sit on the sides or were unseen offstage when playing them and I read somewhere there were 11 instruments, which is more than I was expecting and so the score still sounded very lush.

The set consisted of a revolving spiral staircase that descended into the organ pipes of Norma’s instrument (the keyboard sat in amongst those pipes looked suspiciously like an electric organ) and was set against a large backdrop of an early black-and-white film star. The car chase was a bit feeble but the enormous mansion was not missed, not even during the New Year’s Eve party scene where Craig Revel Horwood’s staging had Norma icily focussed, walking through her mansion whilst the party happens elsewhere in slow motion around her. There were 12 in the cast, Kathryn Evans as Norma Desmond being the only cast member I didn’t see playing an instrument. As posted elsewhere on this site, this West End veteran is so ripe and ready for this role and she certainly made the most of it. The revelatory moment for me in her performance was not in the singing or the acting but in a small instant prior to As If We Never Said Goodbye when Norma has returned to the studio and is caught in the hustle and bustle with scenery and cameras and lights flying everywhere. She is enjoying the excitement of it all immensely, like a child at Christmas, when suddenly from nowhere a microphone swings directly in front of her face and the expression of pleasure and delight suddenly turns to one of abject horror and she immediately pushes the thing away. If that was in the London production I certainly didn’t notice it and only spotted it here from my seat over the stage as Kathryn was facing away from much of the audience at the time. In her performance it was one of those instances where something very small manages to achieve something very big.

Ben Goddard as Joe Gillis played woodwind and electric organ and was possibly not quite world-weary enough for the role but that’s a small complaint. Tomm Coles was in there as Artie Green being talented, talented and gorgeous (as he was in Mack and Mabel and the recent Sheffield Crucible Fiddler) – this guy so knows how to sit on a swimming pool handrail. And, as posted by Flight0017, much more was made here of the Joe/Betty relationship and that in no small way to do with Laura Pitt-Pulford’s performance in the role, wringing every last depth of emotion out of her character.

It was my first time at this now internationally renowned theatre and it perhaps wasn’t as idyllic as it sounds but that was possibly because of all the building work going on. I didn’t get to try the restaurant either though it seemed hugely popular. I’ll definitely be going back should a future season include something of interest.

PS the ducks are very friendly and expect to be fed.
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#19
Posted: 8/9/08 at 10:11pm
Updated On: 1/22/09 at 10:11 PM
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re: Sunset at the Watermill Reviews #20
Posted: 8/11/08 at 6:09pm
When I saw Sweeny Todd with actors/musicians doing duel rolls, I did not think it worked, however I was unfamiliar with the score, it would be interesting to see Sunset do the same thing in a local theatre, then I can give a better opinion as I am very familiar with the score.
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re: Sunset at the Watermill Reviews #21
Posted: 8/14/08 at 5:15pm
"When I saw Sweeny Todd with actors/musicians doing duel rolls, I did not think it worked."

I didn't like the actor/musician Sweeney Todd either PoL. I felt if you didn't know the show backwards (as I do!) it would have been very difficult to follow what was going on.
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re: Sunset at the Watermill Reviews #22
Posted: 8/19/08 at 10:03am
I happened to be sat next to a little old lady at the Watermill Sunset Boulevard, and she didn't have the faintest idea what was going on! She might have been a little more unaware than most (she was quite upset to learn that Joe was shot, and wanted to know that he wasn't badly hurt!), and did think that Norma Desmond was a real film star, but it certainly is a show/story that you benefit from being familiar with.

But it was really great!
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re: Sunset at the Watermill Reviews #23
Posted: 8/22/08 at 6:25pm
ladybegood: I used to take my mother to the theatre even when she had developed Alzheimers and we used to have some sad-but-funny scenarios a bit like the one you describe. You can't predict the level of lucidity that they will have at any point in time.
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re: Sunset at the Watermill Reviews #24
Posted: 8/23/08 at 5:38pm
I can't imagine how appalling it must be to have to watch a loved one succumb to the tragedy of alzheimers, but I didn't actually mention the little old lady because I thought her behavior was funny peculiar. I didn't actually get the impression that there was anything very much wrong with her at all, and she was terribly sweet. She was just there with a group of other little old ladies for whom seeing a show and having a meal is just a really nice thing to do. I gathered they go to see all the Watermill productions. But the show itself is secondary to the trip, and she had gone along without the slightest idea of what it was she was there to see. She had never even seen the film. I don't suppose there are too many who do that. But I had never considered it from that totally unknowing perspective, and I can see that the show wouldn't/didn't make a whole heap of sense. At the beginning there are all these people staring down at something, but if you don't know that they are supposed to be staring at Joe's body, there is nothing to tell you that. There was no actual prostrate body. And it goes on from there. You have to know what it is about, to know what is going on. Hence my comment that it is a show that benefits from familiarity. It's essential actually.