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Theatre Review: Sunset Boulevard - Edinburgh Playhouse ✭✭✭✭

Review by Anne Mackie

“All right Backstagepass.biz, I’m ready for my close-up…”

How could we open this review any other way?

Of course, that infamous line is taken from Billy Wilder’s 1951 classic film noir, Sunset Boulevard – the inspiration behind Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 1993 musical adaption. A production that undeniably features some of Lloyd Webber’s most renowned musical works. Of course, one just has to utter the words ‘Sunset Boulevard’ and many musical theatre connoisseurs are instantly reminded of Glenn Close’s Tony Award winning performance as Norma Desmond, the silent movie star unable to accept her career has been overtaken by ‘the talkies’.

The current UK tour, however, is fronted by a very different theatre stalwart - the equally as glorious Ria Jones, who not only played Norma Desmond in a try-out role for the 1991 musical at Lloyd Webber’s Sydmonton Festival, but also covered for Close during illness in the recent London Coliseum production. No pressure then, eh? Well, it certainly seems not as Jones instantly proves the PERFECT Norma Desmond. No question, Ms Ria Jones IS ‘the greatest star of all’.

To give a brief overview, Sunset Boulevard tells the story of Joe Gillis (Danny Mac), a down-on-his-luck screenwriter who is (quite literally) being pursued by creditors when he stumbles on the extravagant, opulent home of Norma Desmond, a pivotal Hollywood star of the silent era who, like many others, failed to make the transition to ‘the talkies’ and now lives a sad, lonely existence with her devoted factotum, Max (Adam Pearce). On discovering that Joe is a screenwriter, Norma invites him to edit her own magnum composition, ‘Salomé’, for her (assumed) triumphant return to the silver screen. Joe realises the screenplay will never be produced, but financial difficulties lead him to work with Norma, even living in the house on Sunset Boulevard. He becomes a kept man as Norma’s obsessions with both Hollywood and Joe intricately grow. As the plot thickens, Joe tries to escape, but it becomes ever clearer that Ms Desmond lives in her own warped fantasy world, and when reality does intrude, she descends to the depths of despair, even attempting suicide. It is, of course, the care of her confidante Max that keeps her on the right side of total insanity. Overall, this is a narrative that shines a harsh spotlight on Hollywood and human relationships. A story that intricately documents Desmond’s delusional hysteria and ultimate downfall.

It is a complex narrative, to say the least, and although Director Nikolai Foster’s touring production portrays it near perfectly, the first act is a little tricky to ease into. This has nothing to do with the cast, who work impeccably hard throughout; it is simply down to Lloyd Webber’s writing in conjunction with the overall unravelling of a multifaceted plot that proves arduous to follow at first glance. This does not detract from the overall spectacle onstage and fortunately, the second act proves instantly engaging, mesmerising and irrefutably captivating as it documents Desmond’s obsessive collapse from stardom.

Aesthetically, Sunset Boulevard is a visual treat, thanks to Colin Richmond’s stunning set design, which expertly depicts the mildewed glamour of the period to a tee. The contrast between the pervasive sweeping staircase in Desmond’s grandiose mansion to the false reality of life on a movie set, is tied up exquisitely with Douglas O’Connell’s uniquely distinct, ingenious video projections, displayed cleverly across various set pieces and structures. An immediate indication of the 1940’s cinematic style. In a similar vein, Ben Cracknell’s lighting design is beautifully atmospheric and almost gothic at times, giving an apt indication of the darkness Desmond encountered in her fall from Hollywood glory.

As stated above, Ria Jones is the veritable star of the touring production, playing the manipulative, melodramatic icon’s tragic collapse with a controlled yet physiologically challenged poise and panache. Her hypnotising renditions of ‘With One Look’ and ‘As If We Never Said Goodbye’ being two of the show’s definitive highlights. Jones is a force of histrionic nature, aptly supported by two other stellar theatrical forces in the roles of Joe Gillis and Max Von Meyerling. Danny Mac (of ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ fame) is an instantly believable (and thoroughly good looking!) Joe, displaying a strong vocal ability and confident presence that delivers just the right balance of condemned cynical exploitation and requisite survival. Similarly, Adam Pearce’s portrayal of Max is equally as refined, showcasing a beautifully rich vocal tone that is both haunting and poignant as he relentlessly seeks to polish Desmond’s fragile, fixated ego. Notably, Pearce proves musically untouchable in his evocative, melancholy rendition of ‘The Greatest Star Of All’.

It would be unjust at this point not to mention the company ensemble who work tirelessly throughout the course of the production – not only in their retrospective character roles, but also by way of seamlessly moving set pieces to ensure scene transitions are consistently effortless in order to support the ever-evolving dark narrative. Their presence, even if just to move a set structure, gave the impression that ‘someone’ is always ‘watching’ – a stark juxtaposition to the loneliness in Ms Desmond’s soul.

Sunset Boulevard is, of course, a musical that is wrapped up in an (almost) entirely sung-through score. In this vein, special credit must go to Musical Director Adrian Kirk and his 16-piece orchestra who play Lloyd Webber’s soaring melodies to perfection. Kirk’s rich orchestral sound is aurally resplendent, supporting the narrative beautifully – just what you would expect from a typical Andrew Lloyd Webber classic.

All in all, the 2017 tour of ‘Sunset Boulevard’ is an apt, thought provoking and sophisticated ‘world to rediscover’ – a night at the theatre that will indisputably teach you ‘new ways to dream’. Be sure to visit the Edinburgh Playhouse Theatre before the production leaves the ‘boulevard’ on Saturday.

For tickets and information visit ATG Tickets

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