A production of a Lloyd Webber musical at the Oxford Playhouse impresses Giles Woodforde no end

Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical Sunset Boulevard tells the story of Norma Desmond, one-time goddess of the silent screen: “I am big, it’s the pictures that got small,” she snaps as she seeks to explain the collapse of her career.

Now she glowers inside her Hollywood mansion, forgotten and seething with bitterness until young scriptwriter Joe Gillis turns up when his car breaks down. Quick as a flash, Norma smells an opportunity: Joe must move in immediately and write the script for her comeback film.

Any production of Sunset Boulevard stands or falls on the casting of these two principal characters so the show isn’t an obvious choice for an amateur operatic society, which naturally likes to give the maximum number of members a chance to shine. But, ever up for a challenge, Oxford Operatic Society has nonetheless selected Sunset as its autumn Playhouse production.

In the event, Oxford Operatic director Glen Young has solved the problem with great flair and exploits every chorus opportunity to the full, greatly aided by Stephen Piper’s imaginative choreography. Particularly memorable are scenes involving the make-up assistants; “Eternal youth is worth a little suffering,” sing the ladies as they slap on the warpaint, and a splendidly synchronised group of camp tailors, summoned by Norma to improve Joe’s appearance.

The chorus is also used for some cheerful party scenes, performed with much zest and enthusiasm.

Susanne Hodgson is a clever choice as Norma. She has a warm voice, and sings with great confidence, allied to a seemingly inborn sense of timing. She doesn’t, however, inject her singing with any of Norma’s self-centred nastiness, that’s left to her speaking voice – which can drip with venom – implying there is a softer centre to Norma than her viperous outer crust might suggest.

Meanwhile, Guy Grimsley puts in a strong performance as he develops the character of scriptwriter Joe Gillis. At first alarmingly naïve, his Joe soon develops a rebellious streak as he seeks release from Norma’s emotional blackmail, and confronts her creepy companion (Stephen Pascoe).

Sunset Boulevard may not be Lloyd Webber’s greatest musical, but Oxford Operatic have seized every possible opportunity on offer, and really do the show proud – their production is a great achievement. At the Oxford Playhouse until Saturday.