Wednesday 11 April 2018

Sunset Boulevard - Review

New Wimbledon Theatre, London


Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber
Book & lyrics by Don Black & Christopher Hampton
Based on the Billy Wilder film
Directed by Nikolai Foster

Ria Jones
It is a delight to return to this award-winning production of Sunset Boulevard as its week-long residency in Wimbledon brings it the closest to central London that its touring licence (which has already included venues in Italy and Holland) will allow.

Directed by the Curve’s Nikolai Foster, at its Leicester launch last September (for my review of that opening night see the foot of this page) the show was nigh-on perfect. Seeing the production some seven months on reveals that not only have this outstanding company gelled, but also how some of the cast have matured into their roles.

A packed house at the New Wimbledon Theatre rose as one to salute Ria Jones’ bow and with good reason. Jones remains magnificent, her definitive, decaying diva capturing Norma Desmond’s long-faded Hollywood majesty. Notwithstanding her remarkable association with the role (remember that she created it for Lloyd-Webber as he trialled the show, nearly ten-thousand midnights ago, at his Sydmonton Festival) Jones’ performance now reveals a greater depth to Desmond’s tragedy. Free of the distractions of movie mega-stardom that surrounded the show’s most recent Norma in both London and on Broadway, Jones’ portrayal of Desmond’s shattered mind stands only on its sheer artistic beauty. Her voice thrills, while her acting breaks our hearts. Ria Jones’ Norma Desmond has to be one of the finest musical theatre creations of the decade.

As Joe Gillis, Danny Mac now brings a fully formed wry, sardonic swagger to the part that completes his character. Billy Wilder’s original story (and if you haven’t yet watched the 1950 movie, it’s a must see) was a noir-satire, driven by Gillis’ narration. William Holden nailed the caustic hack on screen and Mac, now, displays a craft that truly inhabits Wilder’s writer. Gillis’ is a complex journey, with Mac convincing us of his ultimately irresistible charm to the young script editor Betty Schaefer and indeed, his love for her in return. 

On an interesting side issue, since September the #MeToo issue has exploded into our collective conscience. In a perceptive interview published late last year in her native Ireland, Molly Lynch (Schaefer in the show) referenced her understanding of the role to comment on an entertainment industry that had remained “toxic, negative and very difficult for women”. Considering the sexual politics that drive the show’s undercurrent - that of a 50 year old star desperately seeking the desirable glamour that she possessed some 30 years previously – one has to acknowledge that the industry’s ugliness and moral vacuity, only now in the headlines, has actually existed since the cameras first turned.

Thankfully Lynch’s vocal and stage presence is as en-pointe as her analysis. Wilder may have created Schaefer with an essential, if simple, 2-dimensionality. Lynch however, as reviewed back in September, delivers the role in a perfect support to the story.

Adam Pearce’s Max, the keeper not only of the flame, but also, perhaps, of one of the tale’s darkest secrets likewise retains his beautifully sonorous boom. As the audience still gasps at his devastating revelation late into the second half, there is a heartbreaking sensitivity to the devotion Pearce’s manservant shows to Norma.

The creatives here have always been top-notch. Lee Proud’s choreography lends an ingenious slickness to the onstage movement. Not just in the exciting ensemble numbers, but also in a gorgeous tango performed by Jones and Mac to The Perfect Year.

My September review omitted referencing Douglas O’Connell’s imaginative projection work that well supports Colin Richmond’s ingenious design. Likewise Ben Cracknell’s lighting work. Above all, a nod to Adrian Kirk in the pit, whose 14 piece orchestra brings a symphonic texture to Lloyd-Webber’s sumptuous score.

The tour is entering its final weeks and there’s only a few days left to catch it here in south west London. As Norma says to Joe: Now Go!

Runs at New Wimbledon Theatre until 14th April, then touring to the end of the month

Photo credit: Manuel Harlan

Sunset Boulevard at Leicester - First published in September 2017

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.

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