Friday 29 September 2017

Sunset Boulevard

Curve, Leicester
28th September, 2017

Following the publicity surrounding Glenn Close’s absence during the run of Sunset Boulevard at the ENO last year, Ria Jones proved exactly why audiences should never grumble about seeing an understudy/standby. Now Jones is centre stage once more, leading Nikolai Foster’s new production of Andrew Lloyd Webber, Christopher Hampton, and Don Black’s musical melodrama, based upon Billy Wilder’s 1950 film. Having never seen the film nor the musical before, I had few preconceptions other than knowing a couple of songs and famous quotes, but I can now safely say that Sunset Boulevard may be not only Lloyd Webber’s most sophisticated work, but also the strongest musical production I have seen at Curve during Foster’s reign.

I defy anyone not to be utterly swept away by Lloyd Webber’s music, the moment the overture began I was transported to a world of glamour, melodrama, and that distinct romantic melancholy that one associates with the decadence of ‘Old Hollywood’. The anguished strings and soaring brass segments are wonderfully evocative and superbly played by Adrian Kirk’s orchestra. For all the stick ALW gets for recycling his (and possibly other composer’s) scores, the familiarity here, for once, succeeds in contributing to the atmosphere of nostalgia and the slightly sinister repetition echoes Norma Desmond’s desperate attempts to resurrect the past.

In Norma Desmond Lloyd Webber has found his female Phantom, or his Mama Rose, and as a star vehicle the musical is a triumph of dramatic intensity which truly allows its leading lady to shine. And boy does Ria Jones get her teeth stuck into the role! She epitomises a certain quality which transcends the constraints of musical theatre – Stephen Sondheim has said he favours actors that sing over singers that act, a preference which ensures emotional impact – Jones shows us why this is such a vital directorial choice. Jones can act and sing, but what’s more, she acts through her singing. She has one of those voices that in her wavering vocals, fragile diction and sublime crescendos resonates pure emotion; ‘With One Look’ and ‘As If We Never Said Goodbye’ are the definition of ‘showstopper’. Jones’ Norma is variously youthful and decrepit, belting and frail, sonorous, desperate and, ultimately, unhinged. A true tour de force of a performance and a real coup for Foster’s production.

Providing fine support, Danny Mac’s narrator-cum-writer-cum-toyboy, Joe Gillis is more than just a pretty face and he holds the show together with easy confidence. As a down-on-his-luck writer he is a likeable charmer, yet as Norma tightens her grip on him, Mac brings a darker complexity to his performance. Joe is sympathetic, caring, but cruel at times too. His disenfranchisement is brilliantly conveyed in the Act 2 opening number, ‘Sunset Boulevard’, a black and jaded tribute to the fickle fads and falsehoods of Hollywood. Special mention also to Adam Pearce, having seen him before only in ensemble roles I had no idea he had such a powerful voice. His Max is an ever-present shadow, his rare snippets of insight into Norma’s past intrigue and his voice is hypnotic and clear. Pearce exudes a gravitas and stillness with great poise.

Foster’s stylised production perfectly evokes Hollywood with all its cardboard facades, glitzy shallows and eternal optimism. Colin Richmond’s set locates the action in the cavernous studio 18 of Paramount Pictures, the wheeling on of set pieces such as an elaborate staircase and 50’s diner within this space places the musical as a kind of story-within-a-story, complete with rolling film cameras to the sides of the stage. Within this most filmic of structures Douglas O’Connell’s video projections is highly evocative in capturing the dreamlike flashbacks to Norma’s stardom. Combined with Ben Cracknell’s lighting, an effective use of colour-palettes ranging from the blues of LA swimming pools to lusty and murderous reds, this gauzy aesthetic creates a truly haunting atmosphere which underpins the tragedy.

The only downside to Foster’s film set-esque take is the decision to use model cars – shells, really – on trucks wheeled about by skivvies. I understands where this fits in the direction he takes the production, but it left the cars chase scenes feeling a little underpowered.

That aside, Foster’s high quality production is an absolute joy. I was sucked in and swept away by the whirlwind that is Norma Desmond and the fantasy of La La Land. Jones is a star and thoroughly deserves all the acclaim she will undoubtedly receive for her performance. Curve really is going from strength to strength at the moment.

Sunset Boulevard plays at Curve until 30th September before embarking on a national tour. 
For further venue details please visit

Ria Jones in Sunset Boulevard
Credit: Manuel Harlan

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