Sunset Boulevard: the glitz, the glamour, the agony, the tragedy. Based on Billy Wilder’s 1950 meta-cinematic masterpiece about damaging Hollywood stardom, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical adaptation makes a star of its leading lady. As the iconic, inimitable Norma Desmond, the faded silent-film star and fantasist who’s lusting after a young man, and her adoring fans, to love her again, Ria Jones is ready for her close-up, and it’s a masterclass.
As in the film, the musical opens with a man floating face down in the pool of Norma Desmond’s mansion, but unlike the film, the pool and the unfortunate man are projected onto two moveable panels that then become part of the infamous Paramount lot that Norma loves so much, lending some metatheatrics to the stage as well as the screen. Douglas O’Connell’s projections are not just crafty scenic design – the excitement of the car chase captured in quick cuts; the street outside Schwab’s Drugstore busy with big-shots and bystanders – but, along with Colin Richmond’s grand-yet-just-past-their-glory sets, they are clever storytelling devices. In the finale, the final car chase is accompanied by falling letters and lines from the film script, as though the literal and metaphorical writing is on the wall for the man floating in the water, and it works exceptionally well in honouring the unusual structure of the film without overtly spoiling the plot. And, as Norma invites Joe, the ill-fated, stressed-out, failing screenwriter into her life, she treats him to an audience with Norma Desmond in her heyday, as the faded star appears alongside her younger self at the height of her silent-film fame in a touching homage to the loss of dignity and admiration that comes with ageing as a woman in Hollywood.
Norma is a tragic heroine, but she also has to be wholly terrifying. The closing monologue, as she descends like a deranged madman down her staircase, ready for her last close-up from Mr. DeMille, can quite easily become comic when it’s really deeply tragic, and the whites-of-the-eyes, arms-out-wide performance style can look less like the pride of silent-film and more simple overplaying. Yet, dressed in dazzling but dated scarves, sunglasses, and splendid headdresses, Ria Jones is just outstanding: her renditions of ‘With One Look’ and ‘As If We Never Said Goodbye’ are just the right mix of narcissism and nervousness, and both Norma’s dreamy ignorance and dangerous jealousy are there with just one look back at Joe as she ascends the stairs. Joe is the straight man to Desmond’s star, and Dougie Carter is an affable fall guy with a fantastic voice, capturing both the untrustworthiness of Joe as the narrator as well as the charm of a romantic lead alongside Molly Lynch’s gorgeously sung, gritty fellow writer, Betty. And finally, as Norma Desmond’s devoted, slightly devilish, baritone butler Max, Adam Pearce is not only her biggest fan but her defender to the last, even as she descends the stairs for her final performance.
Sunset Boulevard is fame in all its former glory, from the glitz and the glamour to the agony, the fading, and the forgetting, but Ria Jones’s performance as the faded silent-film star won’t be forgotten: she is, as Norma was, ‘The Greatest Star of All’. - Leah Tozer