What I love about Manchester is it’s melting pot. Like any great city it has something for everyone and this certainly extends to its theatres. It has been a while since I ventured to Manchester Palace Theatre in the heart of the city, but I found myself attending the opening night of it’s latest event this week, the ever popular musical Sunset Boulevard.
Musicals are an acquired taste. Some people love ‘em, some people don’t. Whether you do, or you do not, they are what good old fashioned storytelling is all about. A big of song, a bit of dance and lots of drama. The Palace Theatre has traditionally catered for this audience, with its gothic like interiors and vast auditorium, it lends itself neatly to these kind of touring productions.
Sunset Boulevard has its place in history. Based on the Billy Wilder’s classic film, the musical adaption has become infamous in it’s time. Of course with music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyrics by Don Black and Christopher Hampton, is it any wonder. I say infamous because whilst it should be a massive success story, the fact of legal disputes and high running costs it rarely ever made any money.
For what it’s worth, the current tour, which finds itself in residency for a couple of weeks at the imposing Palace Theatre is deliciously delightful. It has the vibe of that original Wilder satirical classic, hamming it up at every look and turn. The story revolves around the silent screen great of Norma Desmond, who still likes to think she’s still big even if in her own words “it’s the pictures that got small”. When a budding screenwriter stumbles on her decaying mansion, romance and ultimately tragedy ensues.
Ria Jones has the ominous task of playing the iconic part. Gloria Swanson played the legendary character in the film, whilst a number of great actresses have played the part on stage including Patti LuPone and Glenn Close. It was Jones herself that worked with Andrew Lloyd Webber in the early days of this production to craft the part of Desmond for the stage and two decades on it’s as if she was born to play the part.
And she is deliriously majestic as Norma Desmond. It’s everything you’d expect it to be. Bombastic, flamboyant and utterly brilliant. She commands the stage with lines being delivered as vampish as you would expect Norma Desmond to deliver them. She’s equally swashbuckling in the musical numbers and as her descent into paranoia goes on, Ria Jones becomes more and more resplendent in her portrayal.
Earlier in the year Jones had made headlines as Glenn Close’s understudy and when the hollywood actress fell ill she took to stage with boos ringing out and people leaving the theatre. Those that stayed were swayed by a performance that by all accounts was mesmerising. It was enough to earn her a standing ovation. It was that story that I was reminded of when I also stood up along with the rest of those in attendance that night to give Ria Jones another ovation.
Whilst it’s hard to escape Jones’s fantastic turn, we should also mention other contributing factors to the success of this show. Nikolai Foster, whose direction induces much vitality into this adaptation and Colin Richmond’s set design along with Douglas O’Connell’s video design, are more than a telling nod to the play’s more cinematic heritage. Indeed, it comes gloriously together in the car chase scenes which is wonderfully parodying the studios and the blue screens of its day.
Sunset Boulevard may not be the kind of show that whets the appetites of the Northern Quarter hipster set of Manchester, but it should not be to its discredit. It is a great theatre show, its lavish, its gloriously played by a great cast, it’s got a star turn that is worth the admission price alone and it’s an evening of rollickingly good entertainment. Now who could ask for more!
Verdict: A majestic performance from its star, Ria Jones, who completely takes centre stage in her deliciously delightful portrayal of the iconic Norma Desmond.