Sunset Boulevard is a classic. The Tony-award winning musical from Andrew Lloyd Webber has been on the circuit for twenty-five years and remains one of the greatest and most beloved productions. The UK touring production, starring Ria Jones and Danny Mac, landed at the Birmingham Hippodrome last night, bringing glamour and golden age Hollywood with it.
The staging is ingenious, with clever use of projection to send flickering black and white film across the stage, and a large screen which splits to reveal Paramount Studios, a 50s diner, or the crumbling mansion of Norma Desmond. The staircase in Desmond’s home is used to full advantage, with three interlocking pieces that can be split and revolved to create new locations. Hollywood is ever present, with homages to techniques of the era, most notably in Joe Gillas‘s flight from debt collectors. His car is a revolving set piece, spun by a stage hand, surrounded by lights and cameras, while a screen behind the vehicle shows the road flashing by. Clever and effective.
For those unfamiliar with the show, the musical is based on the film of the same name. Struggling script writer, Joe Gillas, crosses paths with silent movie star Norma Desmond. Pushed out of stardom by the arrival of talking pictures, Desmond has become obsessed with her return to the silver screen and draws in Gillas to help her create the script that will be her grand comeback. She becomes obsessed with Gillas, and he becomes entrapped by the faded star and her world of luxury.
Danny Mac was a real surprise. The Hollyoaks and Strictly Come Dancing alumni could easily have been eclipsed by the huge onstage personality of Norma Desmond, but Mac‘s turn as Joe Gillas was accomplished and skilled. Gillas is not always a terribly likeable character, but Mac was able to make you sympathise with him throughout. His voice is strong, and his rendition of Sunset Boulevard, which takes a big voice to deliver successfully, is wonderful. His chemistry with both his leading ladies, Ria Jones and Molly Lynch, is palpable. I only wish we could have seen more of his dancing, as his tango with Jones was a true pleasure to watch.
Molly Lynch as Betty Schaefer is a delight to watch, with her innocence providing a wonderful foil to the increasingly deluded and manipulative Desmond. Adam Pearce‘s beautiful voice shines in a mix of deep bass and astonishing tenor, as Max Von Meyerling. His performance is a wonderful mix of sinister butler, devoted servant and occasional comedic relief in his interactions with Gillas. The whole cast are energetic and drive the story forward with gusto.
Stealing the entire show, naturally, though is Norma Desmond. Ria Jones understudied, and filled in for, Glenn Close at the London Coliseum and it is easy to see why she earned standing ovations every night. Desmond is an over-the-top character and it would be easy to tip into farcical, but Jones delivers a Desmond who is genuinely tragic, gloriously mad, and often frightening in her obsessive mission to prevent Gillas from ever leaving her. Her performance is an expert study on the great divas, and she often reminded me of icons including Dame Shirley Bassey, Liza Minelli, and of course, Glenn Close. Ria Jones‘s voice is truly remarkable, and her songs were met with a moment of stunned silence before thunderous applause. She is a triumph.
All in all, this is a remarkable piece of theatre, and a must see for fans of Lloyd Webber scores. The UK tour is at the Birmingham Hippodrome until 18 November, and the tour continues until the end of April. Dates and tickets can be found here.
We paid in full for our tickets. Nobody knew I was a blogger. All opinions and words are my own. Images are production stills from Sunset Boulevard.