Review: Sunset Boulevard (Leicester Curve)

Ria Jones stars as Norma Desmond in the touring production of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical

There is a moment two-thirds into Curve’s revival of Sunset BoulevardAndrew Lloyd Webber‘s magnificently rich portrayal of a time gone by in Hollywood – where leading lady Norma Desmond (Ria Jones) sings of her desire for a glorious comeback and the characters around her listen in awe.

It's easy to believe their awe, as I suspect they’re not actually acting, for Jones – finally realising the role she was born to play – delivers one of the finest musical theatre performances you’re likely to see.

Chosen by Lloyd Webber to sketch Norma Desmond when he first workshopped Sunset Boulevard in 1991, Jones has waited 26 years to do the role all guns blazing.

Her last-minute heroics 18 months ago as understudy when Glenn Close played the part at the London Coliseum but was taken ill are well-documented, but it amounted to only four performances. Indeed, in our eagerness to see her shine, we may get too caught up in the emotion of the evening, but fear not: Jones is a stunningly haunted Norma in what amounts to a spellbinding production directed by Nikolai Foster.

Switching from explosively strong singing to moments of tenderness and humour, Jones announces her quality in "With One Look", a song powered by lyrics by Don Black and Christopher Hampton (they also write the book) which let us into the mindset of a screen star from a silent age, plagued by doubt now that 'talkies' have taken over. If anything, Jones then tops it with an exquisite version of "As If We Never Said Goodbye".

While Jones will rightly grab the headlines, she is far from the only attraction in this Curve production (its biggest to date which will tour the UK and Europe) in association with Michael Harrison and David Ian.

Danny Mac is Joe Gillis, the down-on-his-luck screenwriter whose charm and chiselled features turns Norma’s head, especially when she senses he can revive her career. "I am big," she chides him when he first realises her former status. "It’s the pictures that got small."

While dramatically Norma provides the fireworks, Joe stitches the story together and the former Strictly Come Dancing finalist is good value, sending two women ahead of me a bit giddy when he got down to his boxer shorts and sung the title song. On this evidence he’ll send a lot of fans home Mac-happy.

Elsewhere the pick of a strong company are Adam Pearce as Max – his vocals are worth an outing alone – and Molly Lynch as a film mogul’s script editor who catches Joe’s eye. His feelings for Betty are weighed against the loyalty or even pity he feels for Norma.

Positives must also be mentioned in assessing Colin Richmond’s design, a fabulous staging zooming in one minute on Norma’s over-the-top residence complete with grand staircase to a film studio lot the next. His work is beautifully complemented by Ben Cracknell’s lighting design and a 16-piece orchestra which provides the heartbeat for this wonderful show.

A musical based on a 1950 Billy Wilder movie about the business of Hollywood calls for a cinematic score: music that emotionally packs a punch. It may not be Lloyd Webber’s most famous work but arguably it’s his best, and in Ria Jones he has a leading lady with the talent to match. She is ready for that close-up.

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