IT is a delight when an actress has success based on her stage work rather than having been on the television or, slightly ironically in this context, the silver screen.
Swansea’s Ria Jones has been treading the boards with critical acclaim since I had more of my own teeth but outside theatreland I doubt if many would know who she is. Even some people I chatted to at the show at Wales Millennium Centre hadn’t heard of her before. Hey ho, if it doesn’t come out of a screen to hit the back of our retinas it isn’t known.
Anyway, Ria Jones has been synonymous with this, probably the last successful Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, for more than 20 years when it first hit the stage and recently made headlines (possibly for all the wrong reasons) when she had to cover for Glenn Close – yes, she of film and TV.
She is paired with a chap who I only know from a brief channel flicking few seconds of Strictly (the dance show on, yes, TV) and as he wasn’t wearing many upper clothes I think the appeal is sexual. But more of that later.
Our third main part of the odd triangle in the house on Sunset Boulevard is played by Adam Pearce who looks has some interesting songs to sing which he sings interestingly but he does occasionally comes over more like a caricature of a butler / doorman which is a pity. I kept expecting him to boom “Your Rang?” But then maybe that is the writing not acting.
There is also the only really normal character, Betty, the would-be writer who foolishly falls for the gigolo and out of love with her decent chap. Ah women, what can you do with them? Molly Lynch’s vocals are worth the ticket.
But the show stands or falls or maybe wobbles on the strength of the leading lady and while no-one could ever compare with Gloria Swanson (yes, I know, on film) Ria Jones is absolutely great.
I was concerned when she first appeared, clutching the dead chimp and singing a lament, as the voice sounded fragile if not a bit, well, wobbly. Similarly, to me ear something odd was happening with the sound making Norma Desmond appear to be speaking from an echo chamber. However, it settled down and once she was in those big belt-them-out numbers the singer was in her show tunes element. She has an at times eyebrow-raising vibrato particularly in the softer, quieter passages but can soar with the best of them when the volume and passion needs to be stepped up. Add some splendid wide-eyed silent movie era facial gestures, intentional over-acting, continually playing to cameras (both there and not there) and the performance was a masterclass.
I liked that this actress is not presented as an old woman, just not young. Yes, she has to be ridiculous when in over-the-top costumes, leading lady hats and cloaks etc., but in the more intimate / domestic scenes she looks like a perfectly pleasant-looking woman. She has to look demented when she goes mad but this is based on a 1950s film noir classic which can only capture some of that genre when turned into a stage show. Much of the finesse, elegance, psychological intensity, and acting, has to go but it could have been hammy in another actresses’ hands. I would perhaps have liked her to be more menacing, darker, and frankly less actually appealing! This actress captures the manipulative nature of the character well and there was no need for the overt, looking back with a satisfied “snared you” look although I suppose it reinforced the deceit.
As Joe Gillis, Danny Mac is the younger, all hair, teeth and gym bunny physique kept-boy, who can turnout a tune and has a good repertoire of musical theatre poses and gestures. Admittedly my fears that he had been wheeled in because of being a TV name and now a muscled dancer were sadly confirmed by the embarrassing reaction by women (and probably some men) when he appeared in his bathers. Unfortunately, I spent the rest of that scene trying to work out whether the shirt he then puts on had been specially designed to keep it as open as possible to show off his chest and keep the tongues hanging out for as long as possible. Sadly, this got in the way of the character’s self-realisation number. Similarly a few Strictlyesque dance floor twirls were also too showy to communicate any nuance or chemistry between the rent boy and the aging client. For my liking, he doesn’t really have the gravitas, the bitterness, the disappointment that the character needs to display but he looks good and got them swooning.
Similarly, the feel of the show was not sufficiently gothic, it is after all a vampire-like house of horror where the ghost of the victim tells the story from beyond the grave having been consumed by the Dracula-like Desmond and her henchman butler, in this world of the living dead.
Nikolai Foster’s production with Colin Richmond designs delivers a lot of punch and the use of video in particular, showing old silent films and ultimately that famous close-up, works exceedingly well. Not so pleasing are the spinning cutaway cars which while evoking Hollywood filming techniques got a bit monotonous.
The orchestra belted out Lloyd Webber’s score with some heft and unlike me they managed not to drift from one of his songs into another not to mention other tunes that had me half expecting, for example, Charles Aznavour to start singing She but that is, of course, the magic and mystery of this tunesmith.
Until March 3
Mike Smith review: