From Glenn Close’s understudy to headline attraction in her own right, Ria Jones‘s (very belated) big break is an irresistible showbiz-dream-come-true story. She’s always been wonderful – twenty-five years ago, she was a thrillingly-sung Fantine in the first Manchester run of Les Misérables, twenty-one years ago she was flawless in the two leading roles in the chamber musical Romance/Romance at the Bridewell, and she’s toured all over the place and done concerts with just about everyone – but she’s always been one of those people who should be a Great Big Star, and somehow isn’t.
Until now. This time, thanks to the spectacular word-of-mouth that followed the four performances last year when she stood in for an indisposed Glenn Close in a revival of Sunset Boulevard that had basically been packaged and marketed as The Glenn Close Show, it’s Jones’s name above the title on the posters. This production, too, is being sold around the star – and this year’s star is last year’s understudy (which must feel especially sweet given that Jones, in fact, was the first person ever to sing the role of Norma Desmond in a workshop a few years before the original London production). The show itself is what it always was – some good stuff, a lot of musical wallpaper, some real clunkers among the lyrics, and overall a very imperfect adaptation of a more-or-less-perfect film. While the writing isn’t unimpeachable, though, it’s undeniably a great star vehicle. Jones, STARRING as opposed to playing the lead, is superb as Norma Desmond, the forgotten silent movie star whose entanglement with a young writer ends very, very messily indeed; these cut-price touring productions are often faintly dismal affairs, but the production director Nikolai Foster has built around his star is far better than anyone had any right to expect, and in several respects it’s streets ahead of both Lonny Price‘s concert(ish) staging last year and Trevor Nunn‘s overblown original at the Adelphi.
In terms of her strengths in the role, Jones is just about the polar opposite of Glenn Close, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Close’s power in the role came from her immense charisma: she’s a very good actress, but she’s also the kind of Great Big Movie Star whose effortless presence commands an audience’s attention. Her singing, on the other hand, is not her strongest suit – she got away with it, but that’s just about the best you can give her. Jones, on the other hand, is a good actress and a magnificent singer, but she doesn’t bring that kind of movie-star magnetism to the table. Strangely, that’s a combination that turns out to work very well for this role: some of Jones’s predecessors, including Close, were so loudly FABULOUS! that it was difficult to see why Norma Desmond had been forgotten by the public (it’s not as if the transition from silent to talkies was impossible to negotiate: Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, and Carole Lombard all managed it). Jones avoids the trap (hi, Betty Buckley!) of getting too crazy too quickly, giving us a carefully-mapped descent into madness. She’s absolutely believable as a lonely, lovelorn woman, she sings the living hell out of Norma’s big numbers, and she manages to put her own spin on that monologue in the final scene (and a very smart spin it is too – when her Norma announces that she can’t go on with the scene because she’s too happy, Jones’s Norma genuinely is. She’s completely out to lunch, of course, but she’s happy, not suicidal, because her grip on reality has finally completely snapped). It’s not necessarily the most subtle account of the role you’ll ever see (and I suppose I might mention here that my favourite Norma, as much as I loved Close last year, Jones in this, and Elaine Paige in the original production, is probably Rita Moreno, who delivered an astonishing acting performance and, like Close, just about got away with the demands of the score), but that final scene still raises goosebumps, and I doubt anybody has sung As If We Never Said Goodbye better than Jones sings it in this production.
Opposite her, Danny Mac is a strong Joe Gillis – and for once, in this production, it’s clear that Norma is a character in Joe’s story, rather than the other way around. He sings well, and captures the character’s corrosive self-loathing better than anyone I’ve seen since Kevin Anderson in the original London cast. Molly Lynch is a sweetly girlish Betty Schaefer, Adam Pearce is a just-creepy-enough Max, and there’s nothing to criticise in any of the ensemble performances (some of the casting is a little young, though: whoever plays Hog-Eye, the spotlight operator, needs to look as if he’s been in showbiz for a hell of a lot longer than three decades. Two-and-a-half decades ago, the actor playing the role in this production was a zygote). There’s a superbly evocative Hollywood soundstage set by Colin Richmond (who also supplies the perfectly-apt costumes), enhanced by Douglas O’Connell’s sometimes subtle, sometimes dazzling video projections. The car chase sequences, in particular, work better here than they did in either last year’s revival or the original staging, thanks to cleverly-timed use of rear-projection.
Nikolai Foster’s staging emphasises Hollywood’s artifice: because the whole production takes place on a soundstage, the detritus of moviemaking is always visible somewhere on the stage, even when we’re supposedly in Norma’s mansion. Towers become walls, Norma’s staircase splits into pieces to become other buildings in other locations, there’s usually a camera visible somewhere on the stage, and O’Connell’s projections keep reminding us of the Los Angeles that exists outside Norma’s mansion, which makes the mansion feel all the more claustrophobic. It’s all accomplished on a much smaller budget than the gargantuan, eye-popping original, but it actually makes a better case for the show than Nunn’s production did. The writing is still uneven – the strongest director couldn’t save a number as weak as The Lady’s Paying, though we’re mercifully spared the limp-wristed, lazily-stereotyped camp caricature of a performance that accompanied the song at the Coliseum last year – but the focus here is firmly on the people rather than the set, and the people are worth your attention. Granted, they’re interesting mostly because of Billy Wilder (and Ria Jones and Danny Mac) rather than Lloyd Webber, Christopher Hampton and Don Black, but in a Lloyd Webber show you take what you can get. It’s a pity there are only sixteen musicians in the pit – this music really needs a big string section, and it doesn’t get one here, which means the instrumental passages sound anaemic – but that’s really the only major criticism. It may not have happened without the publicity generated when Jones stood in for Glenn Close last year, but this, it turns out, is a very, very fine revival indeed.
Oh yes – before I finish, a shout out to the front-of-house staff at the Palace Theatre in Manchester, and particularly to the three of you who spent the last fifteen minutes of Act One during Wednesday’s matinee holding a conversation in the aisle right behind the back row of the dress circle. It’s not like the customer experience in this venue is ever good – but my expectations are very low indeed, and you surpassed them. Well done.