The faded glamour and doomed romance of Golden Age Hollywood comes to Birmingham with Sunset Boulevard, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s take on Billy Wilder’s blackly comic tale of obsession, seclusion and twisted romance.
Ria Jones, the original stage Norma Desmond, returns to the role with a formidable theatrical CV behind her, including leading roles in Evita, Chess, Les Miserables, and Cats. Original you say? Why surely that was Patti LuPone. Aha, I say, but no. Ria Jones was the first to play the role in workshops at the 1991 Sydmonton Festival, Lloyd Webber’s annual staging of new material and new talent to a private audience of close family, friends and colleagues. Not only did she originate the role, she also understudied the mighty Glenn Close who led the ENO’s highly acclaimed production at the London Coliseum last year.
Ria Jones has a phenomenal voice and incredible presence. It’s impossible not to be transfixed when she first descends that famous staircase, when she melancholically mourns the demise of her silent career in With One Look, or when she holds all the Paramount studio crew in her thrall for As If We Never Said Goodbye. In contrast to the ethereal angularity of Gloria Swanson’s cinematic Norma Desmond, Jones is a much more physical presence, but no less adept at portraying the complex diva, by equal measure proud and passionate, bitter and forlorn.
While the film and previous productions have been more expressionistic, emphasising Norma’s emotional fragility and teetering sanity, this version is a more naturalistic take on the story. While the faded glamour, crumbling mansion, and exaggerated performance are all there in spades, this production gives us perhaps a more relatable and sympathetic diva. Jones portrays her less as a ghost haunting her palazzo and more as a recluse frustrated with a world that no longer needs her. She is more a figure left behind by the world, than one who left the world behind.
Danny Mac’s Joe Gillis is an equal foil to Jones’ diva. I confess I was unaware of Mac’s previous theatre and TV work, knowing him only for strutting his stuff on Strictly. Oh yes, I thought rather snottily, he can dance, but can he sing? Can he hold his own for a whole evening opposite the mighty Norma Desmond? How pleased I am to eat my words and have my preconceptions proved to be misconceptions. Mac’s Gillis not only treads, but veritably tap-dances, on that tightrope between charisma and cynicism; someone who wants to be known for his talents but is forced to compromise to make ends meet. Mac balances an innate charm alongside those more seedy aspects of the character as a man who, despite himself, desires to have his cake and eat it, to enjoy the life of indolent security as Norma’s pampered pet, while simultaneously striving to make more of himself when challenged by Molly Lynch’s irrepressibly dynamic Betty Schaeffer.
Speaking of Schaefer, her upbeat sparring with Gillis in the studio can sometimes seem a bit pale in comparison to the gothic goings-on up at the Desmond mansion, however Lynch invests her with a tremendous down-to-earth likeability. Lynch has a superb voice, particularly showcased during Too Much in Love to Care, sweet and sincere without tripping over into saccharine.
Rounding off our leads is Adam Pearce as Max von Meyerling, who must have one of the most incredible vocal ranges I’ve ever heard. Despite being a physically static role, Pearce makes a virtue of this potential vice, endowing Meyerling with a stillness that helps to provide a still-point to the unfolding gothic melodrama.
Arguably more emotionally resonant than its cinematic forebear, and more than capable of holding its own in comparison with some of the starrier and flashier previous productions, there is a real beauty in this grand tragedy of squandered futures and all-consuming pasts.
Sunset Boulevard runs until Sat 18th November and tickets are available here
Culture Card members can get money off tickets here*
Review by David Powell
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