Images by Manuel Harlan
Palace Theatre, Manchester
Until Saturday 4th November, 2017
It has been a number of years now since Andrew Lloyd Webber’s underrated masterpiece, Sunset Boulevard, was last seen in its full form on the UK stage, but given its captivating subject matter, and the fact it contains one of the composer’s richest and most haunting scores, it raises the question of why the show isn’t performed more often.
Adapted from Billy Wilder’s landmark film noir of the same name, the show centres around the charismatic young Joe Gillis (Danny Mac), a down-on-his-luck Hollywood screenwriter who unwittingly stumbles into the reclusive world of former silent-screen icon, Norma Desmond (Ria Jones), whilst on the run from repo agents. Persuaded to work on a screenplay the faded star believes will launch her back into the Hollywood spotlight, and seduced by the luxury lifestyle she can offer him, Gillis soon finds himself totally ensnared within her dilapidated Sunset Boulevard mansion.
Directed by Nikolai Foster, Leicester Curve’s slick and scintillating new production brilliantly captures the psychological, noir elements of Wilder’s original to powerful effect, and the visual design team of Colin Richmond (Set and Costume), Douglas O’Connell (Video and Projection) and Ben Cracknell (Lighting) do an superb job in conjuring the two contrasting worlds Gillis finds himself between.
The tale that has captivated film audiences for decades continues to captivate within the theatre, and Lloyd Webber’s majestic score, orchestrated by David Cullen and enhanced by some incredibly clever lyrics courtesy of Don Black and Christopher Hampton, strongly evokes the themes of romance, obsession and seduction that drive the piece.
Having first played the role in the original 1991 workshop version of the show at Lloyd Webber’s Sydmonton Festival, and most recently as standby for a briefly indisposed Glenn Close in English National Opera’s semi-staged production last April, Ria Jones was forced to wait a long long time to revisit the role she was born to play.
Jones’ towering performance is expertly nuanced and delivered with a wealth of experience and stagecraft, though within Norma’s brash, domineering persona we see an ailing, fractured figure hiding behind a forced outer shell; a former star turned anxious victim of her own delusion.
Her renditions of the famous With One Look and As If We Never Said Goodbye are incredibly powerful, and with the latter, performed front stage and bathed in spotlight (on Norma’s return to Paramount), Jones looks every bit the star she deserves to be, fully reclaiming the role in her own right; a very moving moment where two mutual journeys (performer and character) come together to relive a past triumph. Her imitation of Gloria Swanson’s now iconic look is guaranteed to raise the hairs on your neck.
It is however Danny Mac as protagonist Gillis that proves the show’s most surprising revelation. Following his success on Strictly Come Dancing many considered it to be stunt casting when his name was announced, but exuding charisma, and with a mellow voice far stronger than many might expect, he proves himself outstanding in the role.
Adam Pearce brings a real sense of warmth and sensitivity to Norma’s dour and devoted butler, Max (the only other member of the household), using his impressive, versatile Basso profondo to full effect, and Molly Lynch does an excellent job as Betty Schaefer, the enthusiastic young script editor that catches Joe’s eye.
Many of the scenes within the show are very intimate and principal led, though headed up by Dougie Carter and Carl Sanderson, the production’s sturdy, supporting ensemble certainly make the most of things when required.
Special mention should of course go to a fabulous orchestra, led by Musical Director Adrian Kirk, who deliver an exceptional rendition of Lloyd Webber’s suitably majestic, Franz Waxman inspired score.
As an overall piece, Sunset Boulevard requires a great deal of effort and vision to do it full justice, and with this production, we have a masterful musical masterfully staged.
Running Time: 2 hours and 30-minutes (approx.), including one 20-minute interval.
Final Performance at the Palace Theatre, Manchester: Saturday 4th November, 2017
For more information, and to book tickets, please Click Here.