Sunset Boulevard

Date 10th October 2019
Society Beaconsfield Operatic Society
Venue The Phoenix Theatre, Blyth
Type of Production Musical
Director Kathryn Sabourn
Musical Director Susan Sabourn
Choreographer Laura Batey
Producer Beaconsfield Operatic Society

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Author: Ken Allan

It was with sadness that I learned of the recent passing of an old friend; Kathleen Saddler, one of Beaconsfield’s long serving members. Sincere condolences to her family and friends.

Both haunting and desperately sad, Sunset Boulevard revolves around the ageing former star of the silent screen, Norma Desmond (Kath Dryden). Largely forgotten for years, she lives in her dilapidated mansion in Hollywood with her butler and chauffeur, Max (Michael Douglas). When struggling, down on his luck screenwriter, Joe Gillis (Michael Wright-Brown), enters her home and her life, Norma offers him a room and board if he agrees to edit her incomprehensible movie script Salome, in which she wants to star as the teenage seductress. Norma is convinced that she is still as beautiful and in demand as ever. This misguided belief is sustained by Max, who writes fake fan letters to her and shields her from the realities of the much changed, modern-day movie business. She lavishes Joe with gifts and soon declares her love for him. Her obsession with him further reveals her increasing mental instability, and she threatens to commit suicide if Joe ever leaves her. When Norma visits the film set of the new Cecil B. DeMille movie, she becomes convinced that the director wants to produce Salome and begins to imagine her dramatic return to the screen. However when Norma learns of Joe’s secret work and love affair with the young Betty Schaefer (Chelle Milne), her fragile mental state completely breaks down and she fatally shoots Joe as he tries to leave the mansion. With no grip on reality any longer, Norma grandly sweeps down the stairs to the waiting police, declaring, “And now, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up."

It has to be reported that due to an unfortunate accident approaching the end of Act 1 on the first night, Kath Dryden sustained a broken arm when she fell from the stage. This did not deter her however, and her stoic ‘bouncebackability’ shone through, when, like the trooper she is, she carried on to perform the extremely demanding part of Norma Desmond for the rest of the run with flair and aplomb. At times during her performance, it was hard to realise that she was wearing a plaster cast, her characterisation being so mesmeric. The part of Norma is an immense challenge; one which Kath has been waiting for and rose to. She portrayed the journey from obsession to madness convincingly. Vocally it has a massive range and her singing voice with its rich, mezzo/alto tones was a pleasure to listen to as it met the demands made upon it.

She was ably supported on stage by the excellent Michael Wright-Brown playing the difficult part of Joe Gillis superbly. His strong acting and singing voice was noteable, and, being on stage for almost all of the piece, enabled the whole thing to be ‘stitched’ together perfectly. Well done young man!.

Michael Douglas played the character part of Max with fortitude and genuineness. He sang well and was the perfect ‘champion’ of Norma’s unfortunate obsession.

Congratulations must also go to the leads in the sub-plot; Chelle Milne as Betty and Jamie Eastlake as Artie – two names for the future.

There were also some fine cameo performances by Peter Boyd, Bob Douglas, Chris Carr, David Cooper, David Wilkinson, Laura Batey and June Fisher… all of whom played several different roles.

In her first foray into directing musical theatre, Kathryn Sabourn says in her programme notes “This rarely performed show…. has been one of Beaconsfield’s most ambitious shows yet”. It was a huge project for a novice to attempt, but one which both she, and we will recall with very happy memories. Her use of a ghostly ‘young Norma’ was ingenious and very effective. The delapidated, basic, stripped-down, straight through set was complemented well by good lighting and sound design. The family ‘connection’ with Susan Sabourn in charge of the music was made complete. She interpreted the obviously difficult score well with the assistance of her eleven piece orchestra (who played remotely in another part of the Theatre) – congratulations Susan!.

This was my first visit to the Phoenix Theatre for 15 years. It was lovely to catch up with old friends both on and off stage, as well as some in the audience. It was disappointing, however, that there were quite a few empty seats.

Thank you to Chairman Kathleen for your warm welcome and excellent hospitality, and many congratulations to the whole cast and crew. A good night’s entertainment was had by all.