Theatre Review: Sunset Boulevard @ Bristol Hippodrome
by Polly Hember
“Sunset Boulevard, twisting boulevard
Secretive and rich, a little scary
Sunset Boulevard, tempting boulevard
Waiting there to swallow the unwary”
Joe Gillis sings these brutal lines at the start of the second act, conveying the dangerous underbelly of old Hollywood glitz and glamour. This production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Sunset Boulevard is as seductive as Norma Desmond’s luxurious lifestyle that so enthrals Joe; it presents the tragic tale with a spellbinding spectacle of brilliant staging, backed by an impeccable sixteen-piece orchestra and and the incredible Ria Jones as Norma. With phenomenal direction from Nikolai Foster, this revival is haunting, brave and beautiful.
Jones played Norma in Lloyd Webber’s preliminary, private workshops back in 1991, and then famously stepped in for four nights to play the silent-screen goddess at the London Coliseum when Glenn Close fell ill, receiving brilliant reviews at the time. Now, she embodies the role that has waited twenty-six years for her. With the amazing grace and grandeur, with fabulous headdresses and glittery gowns, Jones presents a haunting and entrancing Norma. A deeply complex character, Norma is a faded Hollywood star living in a gloomy cave of illusion and fantasy, with nightly screenings of her old hit films and her adoring servant Max penning hundreds of fan letters. Severed from reality, she lives in the shrouds of her stardom, telling Joe, “I am big, it’s the pictures that got small”.
She manages to convey the humour within the fantasist’s lifestyle, laced with careful sorrow and rejection, which becomes huge and heart-breaking at the dénouement. Jones commands the stage; both the characters and the audience watched in awe at her performance, which seems to be something from out of this world: slightly larger than life and utterly enthralling. Her incredible soprano voice soars and swoons, with insurmountable power that matches her transcendental performance.
Dougie Carter is a fantastic Joe Gillis; hugely likable with a brilliant balance of naivety, seduced by the faded glamour of Norma’s mansion, and cynicism surrounding writing and Hollywood. A fantastic rendition of the title song conveyed the difficulties of “making it” in L.A., matching the crashing chords with raw emotion, feeling the disparate and dangerous effects of Hollywood intensely.
The entire cast gave an unfaultable performance. Adam Pearce’s breath-taking vocals stood out especially, in their booming, powerful range. He is a protective, strong “German shepherd” whose love for Norma and Old Hollywood overpowers all, doting on her in a deeply dysfunctional relationship where he perpetuates her sense of illusion, with a profoundly touching rendition of ‘The Greatest Star Of All’.
Fantastic set design from Colin Richmond creates a busy, hectic and visually stunning show. Cameras whiz by, scaffolding is pushed in the background, and a fantastic and grand staircase that looks like it was plucked right out of The Phantom of the Opera’s set is fashioned effortlessly every time we switch to Norma’s mansion. Gloomy and gilded with flickering candles, this set epitomises the dusty stardom of time gone by. With Foster’s fantastic direction, Norma often appears at the top of the staircase, lofty and detached from reality as she is, and also elevated in her fame. It cleverly anticipates her downfall and descent into madness, and makes for a terrifying and deeply moving finale where she walks down the old staircase to meet the reporters, deluded and declaring wildly, “I’m ready for my close up”.
The musical examines the damaging effects of Hollywood, and is adapted from Billy Wilder’s seminal film, therefore the palpable cinematic lilt within the production was hugely appropriate. Brilliant lighting from Ben Cracknell combined with the projections on stage meant for a visually stunning production. Old segments from Norma’s famous films, a literal “close-up” of her mental breakdown, a speeding road projected behind Joe’s moving car as he pulls up to 10086 Sunset Boulevard and a fragmented reel of the symbolic Paramount mountain and stars is halved by the projection screen along with many other clever projections and tricks make the production feel larger than life. The audience feels instantly part of this grand, cinematic feel – with the fast-paced choreography and transitional scenes with props and people flitting on and off stage, all contributes to the industry, mirroring the busy hustle of the song ‘Let’s Have Lunch’.
This is a phenomenal revival of a complex and difficult musical. Jones feels like she was born to play this role, with a powerful live orchestra, flawless vocals from the entire ensemble and clever, thoughtful direction – Sunset Boulevard is clever, chaotic and hugely enjoyable. To poorly paraphrase the brilliant Norma: the musical is big; there is nothing small or faded about this production. It is a brutal and beautiful boulevard, and one that any film, musical or theatre goer simply must see.
Sunset Boulevard runs until the 13th January 2018. Book tickets here to see Ria Jones as Norma, she's definitely ready for that close up.