By Molly Dowrick
“I am big.
It’s the pictures That got small”
I’ve always been a bit of a theatre luvvie and I’ve always enjoyed musical theatre, so when the editor asked for someone to go and review a performance of the new tour of Sunset Boulevard, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Tony Award®-winning spectacular, I quickly signed up. Heralded ‘Musical Theatre Gold’ by the Edinburgh Evening News and described as a ‘glorious, thrill a minute triumph’ by the Daily Telegraph, Sunset Boulevard was at times a little weird, but certainly did not disappoint!
Despite being one of the youngest in the audience, I immediately felt a sense of nostalgia for the bygone era of silent films and Hollywood’s idols. Centred on a glamorous but egotistical middle-aged former star of silent films, Norma Desmond; Sunset Boulevard chronicles the ups and downs and general emotional chaos of Hollywood and life in the movies. Critically acclaimed actress Ria Jones’ powerful and intense vocals as Norma stunned the audience and so it was unsurprising that the Swansea-born actress received a standing ovation at the end of the show. Norma Desmond is a perfect paradox, a fading diva attempting to create her comeback with the help of Joe Gillis, a struggling but talented young male writer who happened upon her mansion by accident. This situation seemed to show Norma’s control over others as she gains feelings for her toyboy and is able to trap him into living with her and helping her make her comeback, even threatening suicide if he leaves her. This relationship made me cringe at times because it seemed so strange for a narcissistic film star who thinks of herself as the best of the best to fall for someone new and unheard of. It seemed bizarre to paint this picture of the famous diva with a string of previous failed marriages to desire a man thus far unable to mark his place in the film industry. Furthermore, Norma Desmond’s extravagant mansion on Sunset Boulevard seemed an ironically claustrophobic home for Norma, Joe and Norma’s butler Max. If matters weren’t complicated enough, over time Joe develops feelings for a young and ambitious studio assistant he meets named Betty. Although I expected this relationship, Sunset Boulevard hypes up Joe’s feelings of entrapment with Norma, making his relationship with Betty unnecessarily complicated and creating a messy love triangle. Well, that’s show business!
With Jones’ phenomenal vocals and a 16 piece orchestra performing the musical numbers, the Swansea Grand Theatre filled with an aura of Hollywood and the unexpected. Strictly Come Dancing’s Danny Mac was incredible as Joe Gillis, making audience members wolf-whistle at his shirtless body and cry out in support when Joe gets into trouble with Norma, while Molly Lynch portrayed a loveable Betty who gained the audience’s support and empathy. Adam Pearce shines as Norma’s butler Max – his vocals astounded the audience and his unprecedented support for Norma, despite her obsession with fame and struggling mental health, sometimes created a much-needed comedic break from an otherwise hard-hitting plot.
Musical theatre is of course much more than singing, dancing and acting: it’s about the whole performance. Sunset Boulevard’s lighting designer Ben Cracknell impressed with intelligent spotlight use and projections of clips from silent films on the back wall of the stage, giving the show a gripping theatre-meets-movie effect and an all-encapsulating feel. Additionally, Colin Richmond’s incredible design saw the stage depict a realistic-looking film studio lot and then transform into Norma’s majestic residence with a giant grandeur staircase to mark Norma’s extravagance and wealth.
Norma’s demise into mental illness is troubling and arguably inevitable but somewhat exaggerated. Nevertheless, I felt a real sadness at the loss of silent films and the consequent fade of many of Hollywood’s silent film stars. This musical performance, however, will certainly not fade.
Sunset Boulevard is at Swansea Grand until the 21st October, and then tours the UK until April 2018.