When Hollywood star Glenn Close took ill during a run of Sunset Boulevard at London Coliseum in 2016 and her understudy, Welsh actor and singer Ria Jones, stepped in as protagonist Norma Desmond, audience members were aghast and some even left the theatre. However, Jones quickly earned rave reviews and nightly standing ovations for her four performances from audiences and critics alike – and it’s easy to see why.
From the moment Jones took to the stage of Leicester Curve for the new tour of Sunset Boulevard and belted out the opening lines of ‘With One Look’, she had the audience enthralled. Bedecked in jewels, a billowing gown and a turban, Jones confidently reprised the role she first played in 1991 when composer Andrew Lloyd Webber road-tested the Tony Award-winning musical, which is based on Billy Wilder’s 1950 film and the book and lyrics of Don Black and Christopher Hampton.
Throughout the show, Jones effortlessly portrayed the multiple layers of Desmond’s character as she struggles to regain her dwindling fame with the help of impoverished script writer Joe Gillis. At one moment she embodied a beguiling movie star who is confident in her beauty and talent; the next she epitomised a tragic, aging and fragile woman who is trapped by the idealised myth of Hollywood and fame.
Danny Mac, who starred in BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing, is no less impressive as Gillis who fights to free himself from the confines of Desmond’s reclusive fantasy world and embark on a new love. In fact, the calibre of both the singing and acting from the entire cast is so high that each song ends with rapturous applause.
Visually, Colin Richmond’s set is stunning. Large moveable staircases, props, studio gates, stage doors, and studio lights and cameras that are present on either side of the stage throughout the show all make the audience feel as though they’re on an authentic film set. The cinematic feel is further heightened by the use of moving images projected onto screens at various stages of the show, as well as the early Paramount film introduction reel, which plays at the opening of both act one and two.
Driving the energy of the actors was the 16-piece orchestra – the show’s largest-ever touring orchestra – which enthusiastically played Lloyd Webber’s score from the moment the show started until long after the actors had taken their final curtain call.
Directed by Curve’s Nikolai Foster, this version of Sunset Boulevard is much more than a glamorous snapshot of the early movie industry. It’s a compelling depiction of unrequited love, obsession, loneliness, romance and the superficiality and illusion of Hollywood. The spectacular show that immerses the audience, leaving them feeling as though they’ve been to both the theatre and the movies – and perhaps even as though they’ve stepped onto the film set themselves.
Sunset Boulevard is running at The Curve until 30 September.