‘Ria Jones’ Norma Desmond has to be one of the finest musical creations of the decade’: SUNSET BOULEVARD – Touring ★★★★★

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Touring – reviewed at New Wimbledon Theatre, London

It is a delight to return to this award-winning production of Sunset Boulevard as its week-long residency in Wimbledon brings it the closest to central London that its touring licence (which has already included venues in Italy and Holland) will allow.

Directed by the Curve’s Nikolai Foster, at its Leicester launch last September the show was nigh-on perfect. Seeing the production some seven months on reveals that not only have this outstanding company gelled, but also how some of the cast have matured into their roles.

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A packed house at the New Wimbledon Theatre rose as one to salute Ria Jones’ bow and with good reason. Jones remains magnificent, her definitive, decaying diva capturing Norma Desmond’s long-faded Hollywood majesty. Notwithstanding her remarkable association with the role (remember that she created it for Lloyd Webber as he tried out the show, nearly ten-thousand midnights ago, at his Sydmonton Festival) Jones’ performance now reveals a greater depth to Desmond’s tragedy.

Free of the distractions of movie mega-stardom that surrounded the show’s most recent Norma in both London and on Broadway, Jones’ portrayal of Desmond’s shattered mind stands only on its sheer artistic beauty. Her voice thrills, while her acting breaks our hearts. Jones’ Norma Desmond has to be one of the finest musical theatre creations of the decade.

As Joe Gillis, Danny Mac now brings a fully formed wry, sardonic swagger to the part that completes his character. Billy Wilder’s original story (and if you haven’t yet watched the 1950 movie, it’s a must see) was a noir-satire, driven by Gillis’ narration. William Holden nailed the caustic hack on screen and Mac, now, displays a craft that truly inhabits Wilder’s writer. Gillis’ is a complex journey, with Mac convincing us of his ultimately irresistible charm to the young script editor Betty Schaefer and indeed, his love for her in return.

On an interesting side issue, since September the #MeToo issue has exploded into our collective conscience. In a perceptive interview published late last year in her native Ireland, Molly Lynch (Schaefer in the show) referenced her understanding of the role to comment on an entertainment industry that had remained “toxic, negative and very difficult for women”.

Considering the sexual politics that drive the show’s undercurrent – that of a 50-year-old star desperately seeking the desirable glamour that she possessed some 30 years previously – one has to acknowledge that the industry’s ugliness and moral vacuity, only now in the headlines, has actually existed since the cameras first turned.

Thankfully Lynch’s vocal and stage presence is as en-pointe as her analysis. Wilder may have created Schaefer with an essential, if simple, 2-dimensionality. Lynch however, as reviewed back in September, delivers the role in a perfect support to the story.
Adam Pearce’s Max, the keeper not only of the flame, but also, perhaps, of one of the tale’s darkest secrets likewise retains his beautifully sonorous boom. As the audience still gasps at his devastating revelation late into the second half, there is a heartbreaking sensitivity to the devotion Pearce’s manservant shows to Norma.
The creatives here have always been top-notch. Lee Proud’s choreography lends an ingenious slickness to the onstage movement. Not just in the exciting ensemble numbers, but also in a gorgeous tango performed by Jones and Mac to The Perfect Year.
My September review omitted referencing Douglas O’Connell’s imaginative projection work that well supports Colin Richmond’s ingenious design. Likewise Ben Cracknell’s lighting work. Above all, a nod to Adrian Kirk in the pit, whose 14 piece orchestra brings a symphonic texture to Lloyd-Webber’s sumptuous score.
The tour is entering its final weeks and there’s only a few days left to catch it here in south west London. As Norma says to Joe: Now Go!

Jonathan Baz on Twitter
Jonathan Baz
Theatre critic Jonathan Baz is London-based but with a coverage that extends far beyond the capital to include regional theatre as well as occasional forays into Europe and the USA. He enjoys reviewing new writing as much as seeing fresh interpretations of well-known plays and musicals. Jonathan also sits on the judging panel of London's Off West End Awards ("the Offies") and has published numerous interviews and features with leading figures in the film and theatre world. Away from the arts, Jonathan is a practising Chartered Accountant with a number of clients in the entertainment industries. He blogs at www.jonathanbaz.com and tweets at @MrJonathanBaz.
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Jonathan Baz on Twitter
Jonathan Baz
Theatre critic Jonathan Baz is London-based but with a coverage that extends far beyond the capital to include regional theatre as well as occasional forays into Europe and the USA. He enjoys reviewing new writing as much as seeing fresh interpretations of well-known plays and musicals. Jonathan also sits on the judging panel of London's Off West End Awards ("the Offies") and has published numerous interviews and features with leading figures in the film and theatre world. Away from the arts, Jonathan is a practising Chartered Accountant with a number of clients in the entertainment industries. He blogs at www.jonathanbaz.com and tweets at @MrJonathanBaz.