WHAT a treat to see the person that Andrew Lloyd Webber chose to help workshop the material for this show over 25 years ago finally back in the leading role. It may have taken a few years for Ria Jones to play the part of Norma Desmond, but after showing just how good she was when she stood in for Glenn Close a couple of years ago, it is time for her to shine, and shine she does, every bit the star of this star-based show.
Jones is mesmerising, captivating, the centre of attention, and drawing us in to her self-centred world with every step, every word, every breath, bringing a packed Hippodrome to silence after both of her big numbers, Winter coughs notwithstanding, starting at With One Look, and honing our anticipation until As If We Never Said Goodbye, quite literally a show stopper last night. Jones is not the big name “diva” often used to sell this show, and like Kathryn Evans in the 2008 Newbury Watermill production she brings a broken vulnerability to the role, as though Desmond is fully aware that her career is over, and she has nothing left to offer.
This story, however, is not told by Desmond, but by unsuccessful screen writer Joe Gillis, and the success of this show rests firmly on the audience believing in Joe and his luck. Fortunately Dougie Carter does a great job, and we are very much on his side as he is lured in to Desmond’s world, and life. He has a lovely voice, and looks exactly right for the part.
The mystery of Desmond’s butler Max is not revealed until the end of the show, and Adam Pierce has exactly the deep, sinister voice to keep us wondering just who he is. When he sings his voice fills the auditorium, powerful yet sensitive and gentle, hardly seeming to need amplification. Molly Lynch is completely believable as Gillis’s business partner come love interest Betty, strong and independent, and Carl Sanderson relishes the chance to bring Cecil B DeMille to life.
The rest of the 20-strong company have their own smaller roles as well as forming a tight ensemble for production numbers, and the whole show is tightly directed by Nikolai Foster, on a beautifully adaptive set designed by Colin Richmond, lit by Ben Cracknell, including some clever front and back projection work, and all under the baton of Adrian Kirk’s 16-piece band, who could provide a great night out all on their own. My only, very minor disappointment is that the very excellent Hippodrome follow-spot operators, whom I have complimented in the past, were a little weary tonight. A follow-spot should stick to the star like glue, as if it is part of them, indeed as they usually do at Bristol, but sadly tonight it often lingered half a second or so behind Miss Jones. I hope this was just a brief lapse in concentration, or even somebody standing in as a result of incapacity, and nevertheless this is a classy, slick production of Lloyd Webber’s best, partly down to the great book by Christopher Hampton and Don Black, and if you can catch it on this tour, you will be in for a treat.