Nicole Scherzinger shines in Jamie Lloyd's cinematic rendition of Sunset Boulevard

If you're after a traditional production of Andrew Lloyd Webber's 1993 musical, avert your eyes now

Anya Ryan, 12th December 2023

Sunset Boulevard, directed by Jamie Lloyd - one of the theatre's edgiest minds- takes the show's darker elements and spins them into something furiously panoramic. Does it work? Well, not always – but it is certainly a show with clear, original vision.

Based on the film by Billy Wilder, Sunset Boulevard tells the story of struggling screenwriter Joe Gillis as he develops a relationship with the older, fading movie star Norma Desmond. In Lloyd's production, we've stepped head-first into the world of black-and-white cinema. Credits roll on cinema-sized screens at the start and end of the performance. Gone are the intricate Hollywood sets of previous reincarnations of this show. Instead, Lloyd strips back almost all design elements. The stage is bare – and everything is flushed in monochrome tones.

Standing at the centre of this greyed-out picture is a star – Nicole Scherzinger as Norma. Dressed in a slinky black nightdress, she's followed by a cameraman. Her distorted facial expressions are projected to a supersized scale on screens above the stage. It is pretty ingenious casting to get a celebrity in her own right to play a character battling with the loss of her fame - and the irony is not lost on Scherzinger, who gives plenty of knowing side-eyes to the audience. But she's also a talented actor with a singing voice of steel. Scherzinger prowls across the stage barefoot and is always one moment away from flailing madness. Her lines are said through sarcastic grunts – at points, she is so committed to her character that she looks almost possessed.

As the younger writer, Joe, Tom Francis provides some grounding to this otherwise weird, horror-inspired production. He gives a more conventional performance but leans into the humour of his character. At the same time, his singing of Lloyd Webber's iconic score is close to being flawless. Torn between wanting to leave Norma to go and live his life and needing to stay with her, Francis looks like he's being pulled in two directions.

But, really, this is a director's show – and the cast, although skilful, are merely his puppets. Francis opens the second act with a rendition of the song' Sunset Boulevard' that is gutsy and powerful. But our amazement is diverted to the incredible staging that involves him leaving the theatre and walking out onto the street. The whole thing is played to the audience through video footage, unlike anything I've ever seen on a West End stage. If you're going to see the show for anything, let it be this moment.

And yet, despite all the clever tricks and style – something is still missing. With all the design taking over, we never quite get to the heart of this tale of ageing and lost love. It is quite the picture, but you can't help but leave thinking: what was it all for?