Ria Jones and Danny Mac excel in this rich Gothic melodrama, set in the cutthroat world of Hollywood
I’ll never forget when, on going to see Phantom of the Opera on Broadway, a humongous chandelier swung out into the audience. For sheer drama, it was hard to beat.
Granted, Sunset Boulevard doesn’t have a giant light fixture, but otherwise it oozes all the gothic splendour of its Andrew Lloyd Webber brethren.
Based on Billy Wilder’s iconic film, with Don Black and Christopher Hampton's book and lyrics, the Tony award-winning play has justifiably earned a place in the musical hall of fame with its portrayal of love, obsession and the bittersweet nature of Hollywood.
In her mansion on Sunset Boulevard, faded silent-screen goddess Norma Desmond lives in a fantasy world. Caught in the throes of her glamorous past, with only her devoted butler for company (who we later find out was her first husband), she dreams of making a comeback with her ‘masterpiece’ film script.
When impoverished screenwriter Joe Gillis - on the run from debt collectors - stumbles into her reclusive world, he is seduced by her luxurious lifestyle and persuaded to help her. But, as Norma grows increasingly besotted, Joe’s circumstances become increasingly claustrophobic and his love for another woman has lethal consequences.
Christopher Hampton, who co-wrote the book and lyrics, said of the production that “it has something of a grand opera about it, like La bohème or Tosca with a female protagonist…it totally retains its power nearly 70 years after the film was released.”
I agree: the undercurrents of unease, the guttering candles, brittle smiles and monochrome projections…Sunset Boulevard is melodrama to the core. Norma, the haunted protagonist, graces her sweeping spiral staircase in voluminous roles and glittering jewels but no amount of wealth can displace her sadness. And Joe’s dalliances in Hollywood, behind the imposing gates of Paramount Studios, show us just how shallow (and sexist) it really is. Young woman scurry about after boss Cecil B. DeMille and, amongst all the vibrant costumes and post-work revelry, there lingers a sense of desperation. Will the big break ever come?
It takes some impressive acting and a huge set of lungs to play Norma in all her eccentric, fabulous, sometimes comedic glory. But Ria Jones rises to the challenge and her standing ovation was well deserved. Danny Mac as Joe Gillis is also a triumph and we even get a glimpse of his Strictly prowess, as he tangoes with Norma at her lonely NYE ball.
In fact, I couldn’t fault any of the cast, and the live orchestra did an exceptional job performing hit numbers like With One Look, The Greatest Star Of All, and The Perfect Year.
Exuberant and nostalgic as Mrs Desmond herself, Sunset Boulevard is a treat indeed.
Sunset Boulevard is at the Palace Theatre Manchester until Saturday 4 November