Curve Theatre, Leicester
Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber
Book & lyrics by Don Black & Christopher Hampton
Based on the Billy Wilder film
Directed by Nikolai Foster
|Ria Jones and Carl Sanderson
There is a magic that pervades Nikolai Foster’s production of Sunset Boulevard and it flows from leading lady Ria Jones. 26 years after creating the role of Norma Desmond for Andrew Lloyd Webber at the composer’s Sydmonton Festival, Jones now leads the show and never has a casting been more perfect.
Some might argue that a quarter of a century ago she was too young to play Billy Wilder’s middle aged silent movie starlet. A 1920s screen goddess who with the arrival of the “talkies” was to lose first, her 30-million strong fan base and then, her mind. What is beyond question however is that Jones now owns the role, bringing a vocal excellence and power to Norma Desmond that has not been seen for decades.
Rarely is a character created that is as magnificent, terrifying and ultimately tragic as Desmond and in playing her Jones, who has spent years preparing for the role, delivers what has to be one of the most sensational performances to be seen this year. Her take on With One Look, early on in the show as the narrative starts to unfold, drips with a thrilling energy, alongside pathos that reduces the audience to tears. Jones’ second half stunner, As If We Never Said Goodbye, proves another spine-tingler, wowing the packed Curve auditorium as she defines Desmond’s devastating decline. And in the finale, when it has all gone so horribly wrong and Jones, grotesquely made up, advances on a newsreel camera “ready for her close up”, the audience is floored.
Several relationships flow through the show. Danny Mac plays writer Joe Gillis, over whom Desmond becomes dangerously obsessed. Mac delivers a powerful presence and style in the role. Elsewhere, Wilder sketched out love from Desmond’s devoted butler Max Von Meyerling and, on the Paramount lot, from the youthful script editor Betty Schaefer who finds herself falling for Gillis.
Adam Pearce’s Von Meyerling is a bald-headed booming monolith, bearing the most complex, tortuous and yet sensitive of loves. Pearce brings a vocal resonance that is as imposing as it is delicate – his take on The Greatest Star Of All is just gorgeous.
As Schaefer, Molly Lynch makes fine work of a delicious Billy Wilder creation. Her love for Gillis is pure film- noir, with Lynch bringing a gorgeously all American cliché to her performance, aspects of her work suggesting the vitality of a Roy Lichtenstein cartoon. Lovely stuff and so beautifully sung too, Lynch’s career is already on an impressive trajectory.
If there’s a minor niggle it’s that the two old hands at Paramount (Jonesey and Hog Eye) who recognise Desmond on her return to the studios, should ideally be played by men in their fifties rather than Foster’s two youthful (albeit very able) lads from his ensemble. Carl Sanderson however as Cecil B. De Mille is spot on in his cameo of the old and wise director who must sensitively grapple with Desmond’s mental decline.
Planned to tour from the outset, all credit to the Curve’s co-producers Michael Harrison and David Ian for boldly creating such a lavish experience, and to the show’s creatives for their ingeniously transportable work. Lee Proud’s choreography is enchanting, while Colin Richmond’s design work, (enhanced by Ben Cracknell’s lighting) makes fine use of projections, screens and the hangar doors of a Paramount sound stage to convincingly create a 1950s Hollywood.
Adrian Kirk's lavish 17 piece orchestra give Lloyd Webber's score a sumptuous treatment, but understand this. In 2017, it is Ria Jones who is making Sunset Boulevard unmissable. Back as Norma Desmond, it’s as if she never said goodbye.
Runs until 30th September and then tours. Full touring details here.
Photo credit: Manuel Harlan