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.
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.
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
0844 871 3014
9 – 14 Oct 2017
08448 11 21 21
16 – 21 Oct 2017
Swansea Grand Theatre
01792 475 715
23 Oct – 4 Nov 2017
0844 871 3019
6 – 11 Nov 2017
His Majesty’s Theatre
13 – 18 Nov 2017
0844 338 5000
21 – 25 Nov 2017
Bord Gáis Energy Theatre
0818 719 377
28 Nov – 2 Dec 2017
Milton Keynes Theatre
9 – 13 Jan 2018
0844 871 3012
16 – 20 Jan 2018
22 – 27 Jan 2018
New Victoria Theatre
0844 871 7645
29 Jan – 3 Feb 2018
5 – 10 Feb 2018
01274 432 000
19 – 24 Feb 2018
08448 713 017
26 Feb – 3 Mar 2018
Wales Millennium Centre
029 2063 6464
5 – 10 Mar 2018
12 – 17 Mar 2018
9 – 14 Apr 2018
New Wimbledon Theatre
0844 871 7646
16 – 21 Apr 2018
23 – 28 Apr 2018
0114 249 6000