Wednesday 30 December 2020

Ria Jones In Conversation

Ria Jones as Norma Desmond, Curve, 2017


Sunset Boulevard, directed by Nikolai Foster and starring Ria Jones as Norma Desmond, is currently available to stream until January 9th 2021 and my review of this remarkable re-imagining of Billy Wilder's classic Hollywood tale can be found here.

But while the show, recorded at Leicester's Curve Theatre, may be remarkable, Ria Jones' association with Sunset Boulevard is even more incredible. In 1992, Andrew Lloyd Webber unveiled the show at his Sydmonton Festival, with Jones playing Norma. It was to be some 24 years before Jones was to return to the role, this time at London's Coliseum where she played in standby to Glenn Close.

Fate intervened, and Jones was gifted the chance to lead the Coliseum's show for a series of performances while Close was unwell - and such was the strength of her performance that the Curve, together with producer Michael Harrison, created a touring production of Sunset Boulevard that opened to critical acclaim one year later in 2017.

Now, in the pandemic, it is that touring production that has been revived for streaming.

This week Ria Jones and I discussed Norma and her. Read on.....

JB:     Ria, you have returned to Sunset Boulevard in the midst of a pandemic – tell me how this current, streamed production evolved. 

RJ:     To be honest, when Nikolai Foster, the show’s director first asked me, I literally thought it would be a concert performance with me in a nice dress walking on in front of a microphone and, with the cast, simply singing the songs. But then I thought, how can we do that? Because if you just take the songs, that's not going to last for even an hour!

Then the more I learned about the production, and that there was a revolve that had been donated by Cameron Mackintosh to the theatre, and I thought, okay, that's going to be a bit different to a normal concert. Then I heard we were in costume. And then more and more, and it just sounded more as if it was going to be like the production - although it couldn't be because there were no sets! And then when I heard it was with the 16 piece orchestra, I thought, I'm in! Sadly, a lot of shows can't afford to have that many musicians, but this score begs for that cinematic sound. From that first chord that you hear in the overture, that big, low bellowing sound, it's just fabulous. And I thought, definitely. I think it's a great time to do it because of all the shows I've done, this one is so special for so many reasons. Of all the shows I'd love to sing this year, of all years, would be Sunset, would be Norma.

And then as you know, Leicester went into Tier Three. So, we thought “that would be it, that's it!” and then Nikolai said, "We're thinking of filming it....." 

To be honest, I wished I'd had a few months’ notice and could have gone on a diet because of the lockdown weight I’d put on. HD is cruel at the best of times, let alone after COVID for 10 months! I'm sorry to say this, but HD is not kind unless you're Danny Mac and you wake up perfect like that. 10o'clock in the morning and he would look just as good as at anytime of day! 

As the streamed production came together, the lovely thing about Nikolai was that he allowed us all to put our own ideas in the mix. And he genuinely meant it. This take on the musical was so new and so groundbreaking that we were all able to contribute to its creation. Dan came up with the idea of Betty and Joe underneath the stage with all the scaffolding for that scene in act two, a moment that I thought was just gorgeous. It was a learning curve for us all.

As the tech went on, we got more and more excited because we could feel and see how good it felt and as soon as we heard the orchestra play, it was like sitzprobe all over again. Actually, it was like a sitzprobe each time they played as they were in the room with us throughout, rather than hidden away in a rehearsal room upstairs. That worked especially well, helping us to connect with the musicians and we needed that even more so with there being no audience to relate the story to. 

I think for me playing Norma to an empty auditorium was just amazing because, for her, she was still in a silent world, looking out to the empty seats, the empty auditorium. Tragic in a way, but also quite beautiful because it summed up her whole world, the silent world.

Since the first streams have been broadcast I have had people say that they found my singing "With One Look" or, "As If We Never Said Goodbye," to an auditorium with empty seats was quite moving, especially today. 

JB:     Indeed – the poignancy of the empty Curve is striking. Within the show, the most moving moment for me remains when Hogeye, a Paramount lighting operator who remembers Norma from her glory days, shines a spotlight on her – sending her mind back through the decades. 

RJ:     Yeah, me too. And the music, the way the music is written for that moment is stunning, because the climax of the light hitting her on that with one look moment, that it's just absolutely glorious to play.

"I can say anything I want, with my eyes!"

JB:     It is a heartbreaking piece of humanity, tied to brilliant visuals and brilliant music.

RJ:     Yes, exactly, exactly, exactly. Because in an ideal world, on a film set, it would be those huge empty studios, and with just that one beam of light smacking her in the face. And whether I did it at the Coliseum, even when I first did it at Sydmonton, I remember that, the build-up. It's all the build-up to that moment, isn't it, for her? And it's just so beautifully written and timed.

And of course in her head, and she's just completely in her own world. Nobody else exists. Even though she sings “I don't know why I'm frightened”, it’s as if she's telling them, she's not. She's in her own little world remembering the fairy tale. It's the fairy tales, and the laughter and the joy and the nervousness of it all. She's a teenager, she's 17, again. She's 17. And that beam of light is that smacking her in the face. She's 17 and she’s just met Mr. DeMille who made her a star.

I bawl my eyes out every time, because that's the age I was when I started in the business. I was 16 doing the tour for Bill Kenwright of Joseph. During the tour, I became 17. And then I really got going when I was 17. So when he says that, "If you could have seen her at 17, beautiful and strong, before it all went wrong. She doesn't know that she never knew the meaning of surrender." And you just think, "Oh, there but the grace of God, go I!"

Ria Jones as Norma Desmond, Curve Streamed Performance, 2020

JB:     How did social distancing impact upon your performance?

Social distancing has imposed some strange and unfamiliar working practices upon the company. We couldn't have wigs. We couldn't have dressers. We had to dress ourselves and I had to do my own hair. I always do my own makeup anyway, but of course again under the scrutiny of HD cameras, you've got to think and I've got to be a makeup artist all of a sudden; I've got to be a hairdresser. Previously I’d have had three dressers. Literally, I would come off stage, and have three dressers around me to get me dressed quickly for the next scene. So that was strange. 

Luckily for me though, I could wear turbans for most of the stream. Also, luckily, I'd grown my hair through lockdown, for no other reason than just change really. And so that's why I was able to use my hair for the last scene. On tour, Colin Richmond had designed two wigs for me. The glamorous one, when she's the ingenue, trying to flirt with Joe and the hair has to be perfect. And then one for her breakdown in Act Two, that was much thinner and going grey and everything.

So I thought, how can I do that this time? And I decided to use my own hair and make that look a bit mad, so that the streaming audience see that Norma is real underneath the turban. 

All of those things were tricky, because as well as thinking about what I was singing, I was also thinking about my quick changes, doing my own hair and makeup, all while we were in the real-time of a show. It was not like we were doing a film with the luxury of stopping for an hour while I did a complete makeup change and hair change. I had five, 10 minutes to do all that in, before I was back on camera. So that was scary.

JB:      Your association with Sunset Boulevard has been remarkable, given that you workshopped the show with Andrew Lloyd Webber before performing as Norma Desmond in its first outing at Lloyd Webber’s  Sydmonton Festival in 1990. Please tell me about that journey. 

RJ:     From the outset I adored the songs, they really suited my voice. And it was lovely to work closely with Andrew on them. I mean, I remember sitting next to him at the piano, in his home in Belgrave, literally while he was writing the end of "As If We Never Said Goodbye," And he was like, do you think it is up or down? I said, no, I think it should go up at the end of “goodbye”, which it does – and then of course he added "we taught the world, new ways to dream" And I thought, yes, that's a lovely touch to the song. 

Ria Jones as Norma Desmond, Sydmonton, 1992

At first I thought I really understood why it was there. So then when I played Norma again – fast forward to the Coliseum 26 years later or whatever - oh my gosh, had I learned a lot more, because I had lived a lot more, and by then (in 2016) I was the right age. And having been in the business then for 30 odd years, and having experienced tragedy, loneliness and fear of being on my own at times all helped me get into the bones of Norma Desmond, because the one thing I didn't want was to become a caricature of her. 

Even now, in the two and a half years from doing it on tour to filming it last week, I've experienced more layers to her. 

And also, I am grateful to Norma. For many reasons, she's been a big part of my life. When I was standby to Glenn Close, Norma got me back out there into the world after my illness and that was great.


JB – Tell me more about the Coliseum production

RJ:     Because I wasn't actually in the show as an understudy, I was standing by in the wings literally every night. It's not every day you get to watch a Hollywood A-Listers rehearse and create and everything and that was fascinating for me. Also it was a way of me dipping my toe back into the business, but not with all the pressure of eight shows a week or everything. It was a nice way for me to just slowly get back into it and by gosh, it worked out.

Of course I was booked as Glenn's standby – so when the time came to step up to the role one had to remember that the reason you're going on is because somebody else is poorly. So as much as you can celebrate it, you have to also be respectful of that.

Ria Jones as Norma Desmond, London Coliseum, 2016

JB:     Kevin Wilson (Theatre PR)  had a ticket in the audience for your first night on at the Coliseum as Norma and he penned a 5* rave review of your performance

RJ:     He did. And it went viral, I think! It was amazing and as someone wrote, "It took 36 years to be an overnight success." But it's a case of being at the right place, the right time, the right musical and the right age and the right style for me.

Everything, all the stars aligned and I swear it was Victoria Wood’s heavenly influence too! She had sadly passed away the day before I got the call to play Norma at the Coliseum  and she was a good friend of mine. At the time I said to Steven Mear: "You know what? She's gone up there and thought, right. It's about time for Ria!." I swear it was Victoria.

We all know that unless you make it on TV, you could be a jobbing performer for 40 odd years. I'd rather be a jobbing actress respected by my peers any day than just being a star for the sake of it.

The sad reality of course is that stars do put bums on seats and you do lose out sometimes on jobs you should maybe get, simply because you're not famous. But I'm happy with my lot more than, more than, and so lucky to have been able to have done Sunset Boulevard at the end of what has been an awfully dark year for theatre.

But you know, we're such survivors. We really will come back better than ever after all this. And I'm just thrilled that we had the chance to do this and it's been done and received really well. Yeah!

Sunset Boulevard In Concert - At Home is available to be streamed until 9th January 2021. For tickets, click here

Sunday 27 December 2020

Sunset Boulevard in Concert - at Home - Review

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

Art can have a curious and fascinating evolution. In 1950, Billy Wilder’s noir movie, Sunset Boulevard scooped three Oscars, including the award for Best Story. Some forty years later Andrew Lloyd Webber together with Don Black and Christopher Hampton gave Wilder’s picture a Tony-winning musical theatre makeover. Now, driven by the pandemic and with the vision of director Nikolai Foster, that musical production has itself been helmed back to the screen.

The story is a cinema classic - of Norma Desmond, a reclusive Hollywood star of the long since faded Silent Movies era, who fate throws together with Joe Gillis, a hack screenwriter down on his luck.

At his Curve Theatre in Leicester, Foster directed a critically acclaimed touring version of the show in 2017 - and it was that production that in these restricted times was scheduled to be reprised in a concert format, live at the Curve over the 2020 festive season. Heightened rules intervened to forbid live performances in front of an audience, leading to the production being re-imagined for cameras and for streaming.

What makes this particular stream so delicious, is that the videographers are not just capturing the image of a show staged for the benefit of a live audience with the cameras as an “add-on”. Here, Foster has taken his company and his venue and then carefully and thoughtfully, blended classy camera work into the mix. The result is a fresh interpretation of this musical that makes for a glorious two-act entertainment.

This website reviewed Foster’s original take on the musical when it first opened - It was stunning then with an imaginative use of projections that conveyed not only Hollywood, but also served well as settings for a show designed to be taken on the road. These projections have been neatly woven into the streamed musical, giving a further aspect of authenticity to a tale that is so deeply rooted in Tinseltown’s Golden Age. But even more than the show’s vision, projections and use of the Curve’s adaptable cavernous space, what makes this musical such a gorgeous experience remains Foster’s carefully assembled cast, originally brought together in 2017 and who return, almost in the company’s entirety, to create this revival.

Much praise has deservedly been showered upon Ria Jones’ take on Norma Desmond, a woman driven by a fatal combination of narcissism and depression, unable to grasp that the arrival of the “talkies” had extinguished the flame of her stardom and such praise remains as true today. Jones, here finally in close-up, is compelling in her take on Desmond’s slide into insanity. Vocally magnificent - live, her versions of With One Look and As If We Never Said Goodbye were spine-tingling - she condenses the energy previously projected into auditoria, and focusses it squarely at the cameras, with a compelling intensity.

Danny Mac’s Joe Gillis is equally at ease, performing for the cameras as in the theatre. Mac’s grasp of Joe Gillis’ wry cynicism - a man who understands his circumstances with a compelling immediacy - remains as sharp as ever, with a combination of both strength and tenderness in his vocals.

The sub-plot between Gillis and studio script editor Betty Schaefer is beautifully nuanced between Mac and Molly Lynch’s Schaefer. Lynch captures both fire and fragility in her turn and in the show’s final act - as she realises the tragedy that’s unfolding before her eyes - in close up, offers a glimpse of her character’s scorching pain that only adds further shading to Schaefer's complexity. Alongside Lynch as a featured role, Adam Pearce’s Max, Desmond’s long-time butler, remains a treat, with Pearce’s resonant baritones delivering some of the narrative’s most pathos fuelled moments.

This streamed take would be virtually perfect were it not for a couple of minor snags in Foster’s direction. When, in his second act reprise of New Ways To Dream, Max delivers a shocking revelation about Desmond’s past, it would have added value to have seen Joe Gillis’ face as he learns this fact rather than having the cameras trained on Pearce. This of course will always be a flaw of a screened show - that one can only see in any scene what the director chooses to show us, rather than allowing one's vision an unfettered view of the tableau as played live on stage. Likewise, and also in act two, there are moments of dialog spoken by Carl Sanderson’s (excellent) Cecil B. DeMille that should add a profound pathos and understanding to Desmond’s plight. Foster has allowed these lines to be spoken far too freely with the result that a degree of depth and nuance that deserved to have been tapped, is missed.

Above all, this re-translation of Sunset Boulevard, back to its filmic origins, is to be celebrated. The vision of Foster and his team at Curve, together with his top-notch creative and musical collaborators - now including the wizardry of Crosscut Media - have taken the cruel contemporary (and hopefully, short-lived)  imposition of social distancing and have worked around these legislative and safety-driven necessities to deliver a show that is as fresh and as moving as ever.

Traditionally, in the story’s final scene, Norma Desmond speaks her final words to the gathered press cameras assembled at her Sunset Boulevard mansion, mistaking them in her madness for a DeMille film crew. Here, amongst the deserted balcony of the Curve, and with only a (deliberately visible) Crosscut camera operator up close, the tragedy both of Norma's time and of our own is palpable and heart-breaking.

Go watch this show!

Photo credit: Marc Brenner

Monday 21 December 2020

Frostbite, Who Pinched My Muff? - Review

Eagle, London


Written by Gareth Joyner
Directed by Robert McWhir

It is grim to have to publish the a review of a show that has currently had to dim its lights, firstly due to the imposition of Tier 3 restrictions upon London and which now languishes under the quasi-lockdown of Tier 4.

But rather than mourn the closure of Frostbite, Who Pinched My Muff? this review will celebrate the show’s genius and look forward to its intended revival and return to Vauxhall’s Eagle, when lockdown is lifted. 

There are few finer, sassier, wittier, nor more perceptive directors on London’s fringe than Robert McWhir, who crafts Gareth Joyners filthily yet lovingly created script into an eye-wateringly funny two hour whirlwind of adult-focused Disney-esque spoof.

The deliciously camp plot centres upon the evil Demon Frostbite (Nathan Taylor) and his attempts to lure Dame Herda Gerda (Dereck Walker) from her life of purity and chastity, to become his sidekick. Joyner’s story proves as wonderfully fairytale as the season demands – and is only enhanced by a McWhir’s stunning company who deliver pantomime perfection. Immaculate timing, audience interaction (to the extent that masked social-distancing permits) executed with pinpoint perception and moments of excruciatingly hilarious embarrassment, all make for an evening of entertainment that is absolute succour to a world that has been denied much to laugh at for the last 9 months. Not just Taylor and Walker, but their five fellow performers are all at the top of their game, with special mention to Bessy Ewa’s Greta who as dance captain, makes sure that William Spencer’s imaginative choreography is drilled to perfection in the tiny performing space.

Definitely not for children, Frostbite, Who Pinched My Muff? Is quite simply a theatrical treat whose careful crafting has transformed gloriously filthy lowball comedy into high-class entertainment. When it returns to the Eagle’s back garden, it will be unmissable!

Friday 11 December 2020

House of Burlesque - Saturday Salon - Review

Century Club, London


With lockdown lifted across the country there is much to commend the twirling bravura of Tempest Rose, in thrusting her company’s short season of burlesque onto a performance-starved and entertainment-craving capital city.

Socially distanced, Shaftesbury Avenue’s Century Club (which later that same evening was to prove the venue for Sky News’ Kay Burley’s undoing) accommodated some 30 souls for an eclectic set. But in a number of ways, it was the requirements of our times that led to the evening failing to reach the potential to which Rose aspired. Intimately performed burlesque playing to an audience of tens, rather than, say, hundreds demands not only a cabaret-style setting, but an audience lubricated by cocktail-fuelled libation. With current regulations demanding that alcoholic beverages only be served alongside a “substantial meal” leaves the audience required to choose from the Century’s disappointing food menu, if they are to lose some of their inhibition to the demon drink. And with such imposed restrictions, much of the noir-esque intimacy that this artform demands, is lost.

That being said – there were moments of talent in the House Of Burlesque set, with the women displaying not only sex-appeal (an integral feature of a burlesque show), but also classy vocal tone and gorgeous movement. There was wit to the routine too – most notably a reverse strip that saw the scantily clad performers don their clothes to the music, rather than the expected traditional take (off).

The show moves to the South Bank’s Bridge Theatre for a brief late-night residency, where theatre style, the artistes’ talented charms may have more effect. But for burlesque as well as for Burley – last Saturday evening at the Century Club failed to enthral.

11th – 12th  & 18th – 19th December

11th and 12th Dec
Socially distanced theatre seating