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Review: Sunset Boulevard at Liverpool Empire ****

Ria Jones’s Sunset Boulevard ‘journey’ is almost worth a play itself.

The actress was the first to perform the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, in its earliest – and least successful - incarnation, when she appeared as Norma Desmond to Michael Ball’s Joe Gillis at the composer’s Sydmonton festival in 1991.

Fast forward quarter of a century, and she found herself understudying Glenn Close’s Norma at the ENO, until Close was taken ill and Jones was thrust in to the limelight.

Disgruntled audiences, who had paid top West End pounds to see the Hollywood star, weren’t just won over by Jones’s performance but gave her much-deserved standing ovations.

And you can see why if you catch her at the Empire this week. She’s simply luminous as the needy and deluded former silent screen siren whom time and audiences have forgotten.

“I AM big,” she intones with conviction near the top of the show, “it’s the pictures that got small.”

And Jones is a massive presence in this handsomely staged touring production.

Danny Mac in Sunset Boulevard. Top: Ria Jones as Norma Desmond. Photos: Manuel Harlan

Her nuanced and powerful performance of Lloyd Webber’s complicated melodies and tricky timings (chronologically Sunset follows Aspects of Love, but nods to Jesus Christ Superstar in the syncopations and changing time signatures of its mostly sung-through score) is complemented by a terrific supporting cast, all underscored by a substantial live orchestra in the pit which adds lush strings and musical depth to proceedings.

Meanwhile if you only know Danny Mac from his turn in Hollyoaks and some fleet-footed dancing on Strictly, you’re going to find him a revelation as Joe, the down-on-his luck studio hack and cynical chancer who gets drawn in to helping Norma with her deluded plans to re-take the limelight, but ends up trapped in her gilded cage, with terrible consequences.

He really sells Sunset Boulevard, one of the few anthemic numbers in the show, handles the tightly-choreographed ‘single shot’ opening scene with aplomb, and proves a smooth narrator.

Under director Nikolai Foster, the production retains some of the sinister, dark undertones of Billy Wilder’s original film, and visually it’s cleverly toned and lit to add to the oppressive atmosphere of the Sunset Boulevard mansion.

Oh, and apropos of nothing, but here’s a bit of film trivia for Liverpool Empire audiences – Paramount movie mogul Cecil B DeMille’s mother was from Toxteth. From L8 to LA. Now THAT'S a story arc.

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