Birmingham Hippodrome, Tuesday 14th November, 2017
Andrew Lloyd Webber has written loads of musicals. This is one of the good ones. Based on the film of the same name, this is the story of deluded silent-movie star Norma Desmond, yearning for a comeback (or ‘return’ as she calls it) and her relationship with opportunistic, down-on-his-luck screenwriter Joe Gillis. It’s a movie biz musical with more than a touch of noir. Lloyd Webber’s score has moments of sweeping, cinematic lushness and the lyrics, by Christopher Hampton and Don Black, have wry wit. But we have to wait a while for the first banging tune to come along – when Norma makes her first entrance, ‘With One Look’. The opening sequence is just recitative – there is a lot of it throughout the show, with characters singing their dialogue to the same repeated musical phrase. I’d dispense with it and just have the songs proper. But that’s me.
As the posturing diva in her sunset years, Ria Jones is magnificent, stalking and strutting around melodramatically and with a belter of a voice. There is real star quality here, beyond Norma’s domineering persona, I mean. Selfish, deluded, vulnerable and manipulative, Norma is a nightmare, but a dream of a role for Jones. Perfection.
As writer-turned-gigolo Joe is Hollyoaks heart-throb Danny Mac, establishing his leading man credentials with a winning performance. He has a strong and pleasant singing voice – to match his physique! – and brings an amiable quality to this anti-hero.
Thirdly, but by no means least, there is a towering performance from Adam Pearce as Norma’s butler, Max, with a voice that is deep and rich and expressive. Thoroughly convincing.
Molly Lynch sings sweetly as Joe’s love interest Betty Schaeffer, and there is vibrant support from a chorus who represent the bustling world of the studio lot in a range of guises.
Director Nikolai Foster utilises elements of a film set to tell the story, with projections and spotlights, and stage hands pushing scenery around. This is a nifty way to include moments like a car journey or a plunge in a swimming pool that is in keeping with the Hollywood setting. Foster lets the black humour of the piece come through – we are both endeared to and horrified by Norma. The final staircase speech is dark, funny and heart-breaking.
An engaging look at what happens when the famous no longer have fame, how the rich seek to control, how destructive one-sided relationships can be… There is so much in it. Above all, it’s an excellent production of a grown-up musical, with a handful of great tunes and memorable performances from the central players.
Sunset Boulevard is right up my street.