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Ria Jones: 'Understudying Glenn Close was the best decision of my career'

The actress is currently starring as Norma Desmond in the UK tour of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Sunset Boulevard

At the age of 19, Swansea-born actress Ria Jones became the youngest person to play Eva Peron in Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's Evita. This was followed by her West End debut in Rice's Chess and further West End credits in Cats, Les Miserables and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.

In 1991 she originated the role of Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard at the Sydmonton Festival, a role she returned to last year when she understudied Glenn Close in the ENO's production at the London Coliseum. She now revives her performance in a UK tour production which opens this week at Curve, Leicester.

Rehearsals are so exciting, I'm savouring every moment. Even now I keep thinking 'pinch me, is this really happening?' It's been a dream of mine to play this role for a long time, so it's quite emotional.

It's a completely different production to the one at the Coliseum last year. Of course, the score is still the same and the orchestra sound incredible – there might only be 16 of them but they sound just like they did in the Coliseum. I'm so excited to be singing with them every night.

When we did the first performance of Sunset in '91, I remember saying to Andrew 'I wish I was old enough to play Norma, maybe one day I'll do the revival'. Fast forward 26 years and here I am.

I've still got the original letter from Andrew [Lloyd Webber]. It's so old it's written on a typewriter – and it says 'Dear Ria, I just wanted to thank you for bringing Norma Desmond to life.' I'm so glad I kept that.

Understudying Glenn Close was one of the best decisions of my career, if not the best. I learnt so much, learnt the music again, and watched the show every night from the wings. I thought that if I got on that would be a bonus, but if I didn't I'd still come away learning so much.

Lots of friends originally said understudying the role was like I'd be going backwards. But it wasn't at all, how often do you get the chance to sit in and watch a Hollywood A-List actress recreate a role for which she won a Tony on Broadway? It was like a masterclass every day, she was very generous.

The response I got when I went on at the Coliseum was crazy. How four performances can change your career path is incredible. I saw the power of social media and felt the whole of the West End get behind me. It was a wonderful ride and so emotional. I lost my dear friend Victoria Wood the day before I first went on in that role, and I very much wanted to dedicate my performance to her because she definitely would have been there.

Sunset Boulevard runs at Curve in Leicester until 30 September and then tours the UK until April 2018.

Click here for tickets to Sunset Boulevard