REVIEW: Sunset Boulevard
Posted on 14 Nov 2017

After some eight years away from the UK stage, Sunset Boulevard enjoyed a hugely successful concert production at the London Coliseum last year starring Hollywood star Glenn Close as Norma Desmond, a role she previously won a Tony award for. Thankfully we haven’t had to wait too long for a fully staged UK tour, which visits Birmingham this week.

Don Black and Christopher Hampton’s book and lyrics tell the story of a young aspirational screenwriter who accidentally stumbles into the life of ‘has-been’ film star Norma Desmond. He is convinced to work on a script that she believes will thrust her back into the limelight. Joe Gillis is sucked into her luxurious lifestyle and it’s only when another woman turns his head that he realises how trapped he has become, leading to a dramatic conclusion.

Andrew Lloyd Webber’s delicious score is still as stunning today as it was twenty years ago. The rich melodies soar around the auditorium, performed by a 16-strong orchestra, led by Adrian Kirk. From the first note of the overture, the sumptuous orchestrations are most definitely some of Lloyd Webber’s best work.

We are transported to the late 1940’s by Colin Richmond’s large scale cinematic set, split between a film studio and Desmond’s lavish mansion. The sliding stage doors smoothly open and close during scene transitions as well as being a focal point for Douglas O’Connell’s excellent video design. In addition, the staircase is split into several parts which come back together in alternating combinations to represent different settings. Nikolai Foster and Lee Proud’s direction/choreography of these complex changes is incredibly slick and the pace is sustained throughout.

Ria Jones has been ready for her close up for years and has had a successful career in musical theatre for the duration. However this is the production that has brought her to the full attention of audiences and creatives alike. Jones understudied the role of Norma Desmond last year and when Close had to temporarily pull out of the show due to illness, Jones rose to the occasion and wowed everyone. Based on tonight’s performance, it is clear to see why she has been given the opportunity to play Desmond again; she really is the greatest star. Her obsession with Joe Gillis and her desire to be desired again builds in front of our eyes and the darkness she exudes because of this is palpable. She has phenomenal stage presence and captivates every time she’s on stage. Two of the biggest and hardest numbers in the show are ‘With One Look’ and ‘As If We Never Said Goodbye’ and Jones’ delivers them with passion and ease.

Danny Mac is extremely well cast as Joe Gillis. Going back to his musical theatre roots following his time in Hollyoaks and more recently Strictly Come Dancing, he is charismatic and it’s very easy to see how Desmond would have fallen for him. He has a great deal of stage time but doesn’t waiver at all. His rendition of ‘Sunset Boulevard’ is powerful and ‘Too Much In Love To Care’ with Betty (played by Molly Lynch) is beautiful. Adam Pearce’s Max is a strong yet silent type, however his bass vocals are like velvet.

A superbly directed, captivating production.

Sunset Boulevard plays at Birmingham Hippodrome until Saturday 18 November and tours the UK until April 2018.

***** Jenny Ell


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