SUNSET BOULEVARD – Touring ★★★★★

In Musicals, Regional theatre, Reviews, Scotland, Touring by Thom DibdinLeave a Comment

Touring – reviewed at Edinburgh Playhouse

There is no doubt that Ria Jones, as Norma Desmond, owns the Curve theatre’s production of Sunset Boulevard that lights into the Edinburgh Playhouse on the first date of its major UK tour.

Which is exactly as it should be. Indeed, under Nikolai Foster’s eloquent direction and Colin Richmond’s expansive and clever design – eloquently lit by Ben Cracknell, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical remains faithful to Billy Wilder’s original 1950 film noire in details as well as in its brilliant, near perfect structure.

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Norma Desmond, a silent movie star lost in oblivion with the arrival of the talkies and still yearning for a come-back in 1949, is the production’s heart. Jones makes her a point of near stasis around which busy people live out their frenetic lives.

The play’s eyes, however, are those of washed-up screenwriter Joe Gillis – played to perfection by Danny Mac as a shallow, self-centred and lightweight character. His failings lead him up the cracked driveway of the mansion at 10086 Sunset Boulevard where he takes on the role of script editor for Norma’s overblown, self-aggrandising take on Salome.

What makes the whole thing so compelling as a piece of theatre – quite aside from the musical elements – is Foster’s smooth, easy storytelling. By structuring the setting around Stage 18 of Paramount’s Hollywood studios, he plays the whole thing out as if it were a movie being performed and shot in real time.

The cameras, props and backdrops are visible all the time, so they disappear in plain site while you focus in on the action and performances themselves. Which allows the production to move seamlessly between locations – and succeeds in echoing the claustrophobia generated by Wilder on the silver screen.

There’s a small army of extras – well a cast of 20 – who help drive it on, ensuring that the filming lot scenes with the excellent Carl Sanderson as Cecil B DeMille are packed and dynamic. Their presence throughout, such as when Gillis meets up with Molly Lynch’s wannabe writer Betty Shaefer in Schwab’s bar, only accentuating Norma’s isolation.

Lynch is just about right as Betty. Her voice equal to the music and her creation of her character as clear as it could be in its development. As she falls for Joe in their duet on Girl Meets Boy, only he can fail to see what is happening. Mac’s Joe, however, retains his ambivalence – perhaps a bit too realistically in their reprise on New Ways to Dream as you are not sure whether it is the performance or the character that lacks depth.

There’s no lack of depth to Adam Pearce’s strong turn as Norma’s butler Max. His voice is deep, dark and resonant with the hint of even more power in reserve down low – and he goes very low indeed. Up high, it is a gentle whisper that caresses the notes. His love for his mistress is evident but the unspoken strengths are clear, with an underlying brutality should Gillis not act as he should.

From the pit, Adrian Kirk ensures that his 16-strong orchestra is worth every note, adding a rare clarity to the sound.

But this is still Ria Jones’s show.

She can act, creating a Norma who is a tense, manipulative, spoiled child of a fading star. She can sing – boy can she sing – with a voice that is gorgeous to listen to, that tells the story and which, when she hits those big notes, ensures that they know all about it and stay hit.

vibrant revelation

It is her combination of the two, however, which makes this special. She sets out her stall easily, her With One Look establishing Norma’s place in the pantheon of film greats. But it is when she makes it to Stage 18 that the real magic happens. As if We Never Said Goodbye stops being a great song to show off a voice, and becomes vibrant revelation of the tensions and intimacies of making cinema; it’s better than a showstopper, as she finds every nuance of meaning in the words.

Ria Jones and Company. Pic: Manuel Harlan

Which is really why this is a five star show. There are niggles – the metaphor of Norma’s monkey is somehow lost, for example – but in terms of combining the arts of acting and singing, music and dialogue, to create one great piece of storytelling, this works from bustling beginning right up to its big, glorious and painfully tragic ending.

Running time: Two hours and 30 minutes (including one interval).
Edinburgh Playhouse, 18 – 22 Greenside Place, EH1 3AA.
Tuesday 3 – Saturday 7 Oct 2017
Evenings: 7.30pm; Matinees: Wed, Sat: 2.30pm.
Tickets and details: www.atgtickets.com

Tour website: https://uktour.sunsetboulevardthemusical.com/.
On Twitter: @ SunsetBlvdUK .
On Facebook: @SunsetBoulevardTheMusical.
The soundtrack and original movie are available from Amazon. Click on the images for details.

Sunset Boulevard on tour:

3 – 7 Oct 2017
Edinburgh
Edinburgh Playhouse
0844 871 3014
Book online

9 – 14 Oct 2017
Newcastle
Theatre Royal
08448 11 21 21
Book online

16 – 21 Oct 2017
Swansea
Swansea Grand Theatre
01792 475 715
Book online

23 Oct – 4 Nov 2017
Manchester
Palace Theatre
0844 871 3019
Book online

6 – 11 Nov 2017
Aberdeen
His Majesty’s Theatre
01224 641122
Book online

13 – 18 Nov 2017
Birmingham
Birmhingham Hippodrome
0844 338 5000
Book online

21 – 25 Nov 2017
Dublin
Bord Gáis Energy Theatre
0818 719 377
Book online

28 Nov – 2 Dec 2017
Milton Keynes
Milton Keynes Theatre
08448 717652
Book online

9 – 13 Jan 2018
Bristol
Bristol Hippodrome
0844 871 3012
Book online

16 – 20 Jan 2018
Southampton
Mayflower Theatre
02380 711811
Book online

22 – 27 Jan 2018
Woking
New Victoria Theatre
0844 871 7645
Book online

29 Jan – 3 Feb 2018
Southend
01702 351135
Cliffs Pavilion
Book online

5 – 10 Feb 2018
Bradford
Alhambra Theatre
01274 432 000
Book online

19 – 24 Feb 2018
Liverpool
Empire Theatre
08448 713 017
Book online

26 Feb – 3 Mar 2018
Cardiff
Wales Millennium Centre
029 2063 6464
Book online

5 – 10 Mar 2018
Ipswich
Regent Theatre
01473 433100
Book online

12 – 17 Mar 2018
Plymouth
Theatre Royal
01752 230440
Book online

9 – 14 Apr 2018
Wimbledon
New Wimbledon Theatre
0844 871 7646
Book online

16 – 21 Apr 2018
Canterbury
Marlowe Theatre
01227 787787
Book online

23 – 28 Apr 2018
Sheffield
Lyceum Theatre
0114 249 6000
Book online

Thom Dibdin
Thom Dibdin has been reviewing and writing about theatre in Scotland since the last millennium. He is currently Scotland Correspondent for The Stage newspaper. In 2010, he founded AllEdinburghTheatre.com. The city's only dedicated theatre website, it covers all Edinburgh theatre year-round - and all theatre made in Edinburgh during EdFringe. Thom is passionate about quality in theatre criticism and is a member of the Critics' Awards for Theatre in Scotland. In addition to his personal account, he tweets @AllEdinTheatre.
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Thom Dibdin
Thom Dibdin has been reviewing and writing about theatre in Scotland since the last millennium. He is currently Scotland Correspondent for The Stage newspaper. In 2010, he founded AllEdinburghTheatre.com. The city's only dedicated theatre website, it covers all Edinburgh theatre year-round - and all theatre made in Edinburgh during EdFringe. Thom is passionate about quality in theatre criticism and is a member of the Critics' Awards for Theatre in Scotland. In addition to his personal account, he tweets @AllEdinTheatre.