Review - Sunset Boulevard (UK tour)

Followers of theatre news are likely to remember April last year when during a run of Sunset Boulevard at the ENO, actress Glenn Close fell ill and understudy Ria Jones took on the leading role of Norma Desmond, winning over audiences and receiving raves for her performance. The musical, with book and lyrics by Don Black and Christopher Hampton and music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, has been a firm favourite with musical theatre fans for years, and the juicy leading role is one which any actress would surely love to take on. Well, now Jones is back in that role again, this time in director Nikolai Foster's touring production. Stunning audiences with her refined acting and immense vocal power, she gives a performance which is hard to forget.

Danny Mac, Ria Jones and Adam Pearce in Sunset Boulevard
Photo credit - Manuel Harlan
As Norma Desmond, a faded silent movie star desperate to make a return to the limelight in Hollywood, Ria Jones captivates from her very first entrance. Clad head to toe in decadent and outlandishly glamorous attire, she carries herself airily, and it is clear that she is a woman living in her own world, unaware that her audience has left her behind. As well as some enthralling acting, Jones sings the role staggeringly well. Accompanied by a sumptuous live orchestra, Jones lends her thrilling vocals to iconic numbers such as With One Look and As If We Never Said Goodbye, bringing the house down in several occasions.

Opposite Jones, Hollyoaks and Strictly Come Dancing star Danny Mac proves himself to be a charming leading man as Joe Gillis, a down on his luck screenwriter who accidentally stumbles into Norma's home one night and finds himself thrust into her world of fantasy. His cynical narration ties the story together, and he plays his own part in Norma's illusion without hesitancy. Impressively, in a musical full of showstoppers for its female lead, Mac holds his own and performs the title number passionately, showcasing strong vocals. Following his turn as Warner Huntington III in the Leicester Curve's production of Legally Blonde last year, and more recently Gabey in the Regent's Park Open Air Theatre's On The Town, it seems as if his musical theatre career is on the rise!

Aside from the masterful performances, set and costume designer Colin Richmond's gorgeous designs are undoubtedly the highlight of this touring production. Cleverly playing on the idea of Norma's life mirroring the artificial facade of Hollywood, the set pieces break apart throughout the show to reveal their fakeness. Car chase scenes are played like something from a movie, with the bare bones of a vehicle being swayed by a barely disguised stage hand whilst the road is projected on a screen behind it. Yet despite this, the production maintains a sense of old Hollywood glamour. This is further emphasised by Ben Cracknell's lighting design, which is full of glorious brightness and warmth, and serves to increase the filmic aspect of the production design.

Sunset Boulevard is undoubtedly one of the most well known and loved musicals to have ever been written, and this touring production does an excellent job of showing just exactly why that is. With countless sublime musical numbers, a wonderfully atmospoheric design and a couple of exemplary leading performances, this production of Sunset Boulevard should not be missed.

Review - 42nd Street (Theatre Royal Drury Lane)

'You're going out a youngster, but you've got to come back a star!' 

That immortal quote has never rung truer than today, as the classic Broadway smash hit 42nd Street taps its way back into the hearts of London audiences. At a time when atypical musicals such as the outrageous The Book of Mormon, and the rap sensation that is Hamilton, are ruling in the hearts of musical theatre lovers, it's easy to envision a good old fashioned musical like 42nd Street missing the mark and being rejected in favour of more modern hits. Thankfully though, it seems as if there is room for both old and new in the West End, as 42nd Street wows from start to finish, and never feels anything but fresh and vibrant.

The cast of 42nd Street
photo credit - Brinkhoff & Moegenburg 
The plot is your standard rags to riches fairytale. When the out of town tryout of legendary theatre director Julian Marsh's next big hit Pretty Lady is halted by the indisposition of his demanding leading lady Dorothy Brock, young chorus girl Peggy Sawyer is thrust into the limelight. Luckily the story's formula is a winning one in the case of 42nd Street, which revels in showing every single thrill and spill. It's a show about show business, and the hyperdramatic will-she-won't-she element fits in perfectly with that, and doesn't seem stale or overplayed at all. Admittedly the musical does show its age elsewhere, such as in songs like Keep Young And Beautiful, which reminds women to 'keep young and beautiful if you want to be loved'. But 42nd Street has so much deliberate hokiness and self-awareness that it could be said that the retro sexist aspects are just a reflection of the era in which the musical is set. 

It's an utter joy to see 42nd Street thriving at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane. It's hard to resist the megawatt smiles of the ensemble, currently the biggest on the West End, as they set the stage alight in popular numbers such as Lullaby Of Broadway and the titular Forty-Second Street. Special praise must also go to Stuart Neal as self professed temperamental tenor Billy Lawlor. He leads the gigantic ensemble in huge production numbers such as We're In The Money, a moment which is sure to delight even the most stoic audience members. However, amid all the pomp and circumstance, it is young star Clare Halse who truly steals the show as Peggy Sawyer. From the moment she stumbles onto stage unassumingly, only to reveal herself as a formidable hoofer, Peggy has her co-workers beguiled, and it doesn't take long for Halse to have the audience following suit. 

42nd Street is nothing less than showstopping in every sense. From the moment the curtain rises to reveal the 50 strong cast furiously tapping away to the opening routine, it's abundantly clear that no expense has been spared on this production. From the cast of first rate performers to the feast of spectacle which oozes from the sets and gorgeous costumes, this is what a big budget West End musical should aspire to be. It's a giant, glitzy, eye-popping production with enough energy to light up the whole of Theatreland. 

Review - An American In Paris (Dominion Theatre)

The glorious elegance of Paris meets the malaise of post war Europe in An American In Paris, which transfers to London after a hugely successful Broadway run. The production is based on the 1951 film of the same name, and is directed by Christopher Wheeldon, the acclaimed contemporary ballet choreographer. Wheeldon's expertise inflects each dance sequence with sensation, and is notable throughout the production as a whole, which moves smoothly and kinetically from start to end. Meanwhile, the music and lyrics of George and Ira Gershwin are irresistibly charming and full of flair.

Haydn Oakley and the cast of An American In Paris
Photo credit - Johan Persson 
In a Paris racked with guilt and haunted by the events of the war, Jewish-American Pianist Adam Hochberg narrates a story in which he is curiously sidelined, about how his friend, American Lieutenant Jerry Mulligan, arrives in Paris after its liberation, and decides to stay and pursue artistic endeavours. Hochberg and Mulligan team up with Henri Baurel, the son of a wealthy family obsessed with appearances, who dreams of being an entertainer. The trio are brought together by their artistic interests, and inexorably linked by their attraction to a talented and demure ballet dancer named Lise, whose talent and spirit enraptures them all.

Bob Crowley's production design is gorgeously painted in a light dreamy pallet, which transports the audience to some of Paris' most recognisable and evocative locations. In a uniformly excellent cast of performers, Royal Ballet star Leanne Cope shines as Lise, with a sweet voice and unmatched dancing skills, which is only to be expected given her impressive career prior to her star turn originating the role of Lise of Broadway in 2015. She effortlessly sells Lise's remarkable talent as a ballet dancer to be reckoned with, and adds innocence and personality to Christopher Wheeldon's striking choreography. 

However, despite its heavenly design and mesmerizing choreography, An American In Paris doesn't quite hit every mark. Like many musicals originating several decades ago, what constitutes 'romance' within the setting of 1940s France comes of as a little bit uncomfortable by today's standards. Certainly, having three men lust after the same woman after she initially shows very minimal interest in any of them can be a little unnerving. This is made all the more noticeable as we're currently in the midst of an outpouring of allegations of sexual assault in the arts. Of course, within the context of the story, it's not intended to be anything more than an innocent tale of a woman opening herself up to love after enduring emotional trauma, but nevertheless to an audience in 2017 the story's connotations could be seen as a little uncomfortable. 

Additionally, the production maintains a sleepy pace throughout, which works in its favour in many ways, but does mean that more urgent or even just flashier moments jar with the piece's tone. Henri's act two dream sequence I'll Build A Stairway To Paradise seems to come out of nowhere, and is enjoyable but bizarre after the production has established a subdued and grounded tone throughout. Similarly, the unmistakably brave and angsty 'Laurey's Dream From Oklahoma'-esque abstract ballet sequence which brings the second act near enough to a close, is exciting and fabulously performed, but seems incongruous with the musical's mellowness, which is maintained for the majority of the show.

All of that being said, dance lovers will no doubt adore An American In Paris' gorgeous ballet scenes, which are undoubtedly the musical's main draw. Full of joie de vivre, it calls back to a time when musicals were easy breezy, but also contains a bit of bite for modern day audiences to get their teeth into. 

Interview - Belinda Lang (Duet For One)

When asked for a brief overview of her career, Belinda Lang admits, 'I've been doing this for over 40 years, I suppose I must have been in dozens and dozens and dozens of plays, and a lot of telly as well, so I really don't think I can summarise it'. An enviable answer, and totally founded. Lang has been working as an actor since 1980, and made a name for herself in the 90s, in sitcoms Seconds Thoughts and 2point4 Children. Since then her CV has filled up with a massive variety of roles across several different mediums. In fact, you may have seen her earlier this year as Aunt Eller, in the BBC's Oklahoma Proms, reprising the role she played on tour a few years ago. And now she's returning to the stage yet again, to play Stephanie Abrahams in the UK tour of Tom Kempinski's award-winning play Duet For One

Based loosely on the real life musician Jacqueline du Pré, Duet For One is the sparkling and moving story of concert a violinist who is forced to consult a psychiatrist after being diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, a life changing disease which forces her to reevaluate her life. Being a two hander, focusing on such an affecting subject, it's interesting to hear Lang describe the play as 'actually quite funny', before adding, 'you wouldn't think it would be.' In fact, despite playing a character whose life has been shaken by such a significant health issue, Lang maintains that Duet For One is not an upsetting play to watch or be a part of.  'Of course it's moving in that it's about a person who is struggling, but she's a very feisty woman and it's the not MS that going to get her. She's not dying. She's dealing with her life, and she goes about it in a very spirited fashion'. It seems as if Lang has a lot of admiration for the character she plays, which is understandable. Especially as she adds 'it's not a play about somebody in decline, it's a play about someone learning to live with themselves as they are, rather than as they thought they were going to be.'

Due to the two hander nature of the play, Duet For One has its own specific set of challenges, not least because sharing the stage with just one other actor is hugely exposing. Even when the actor opposite you is wildly successful writer and actor Oliver Cotton. Lang explains that 'every play brings different challenges', before elaborating that 'the main challenge in this [play] is learning it, because there are only two of us so there's a lot to take in, but it's very well written so once you know it it kind of sweeps you along.' That being said, she does joke that 'it's hard remembering it all in the right order!' It's surprising and heartening to hear such a seasoned actor talk so candidly and humbly about the challenges which such a play presents, with Lang admitting that 'you can't not concentrate for a single second, and of course, when you're in a play you should be concentrating, but it's frightening to know that if you drop your concentration then the whole thing could hit the deck.'

Belinda Lang in Duet For One
Understandably, the two-hander nature of the play affects the dynamic of the relationships between actors on stage, but interesting Lang explains that it also alters the connection between the actors and audience too. 'It's very personal. The fact that there's only two of us, and the fact that it's a conversation, sucks the audience into it. They get drawn in like a vortex, and when the bits come that are quite quiet you can feel the concentration. They concentrate with you, and they go through the process with you, which they might not so much if it was dissipated by other scenes and other characters. They do seem to come on a journey with us.' 

And it's that journey which Lang describes as Duet For One's main selling point Particularly in regards to her character's exploration of her feelings, and attitudes towards her new life. Lang describes how' 'a lot of people either have been through therapy, or haven't and wonder what it's like, and this does give you a sort of bird's eye view of what can happen. Therapy is a space to explore your feelings, some of which are aggressive, and it's a safe place to let off steam. I think people who've been there would recognise it, and for other people it's quite interesting. A revelation.' 

Interview - Orlando Seale (Manhattan Parisienne)

Actor Orlando Seale is currently appearing in a work in progress production of Alain Boublil's Manhattan Parisienne at The Other Palace. Following on from its world premier in 59E59 theatres, New York, in December 2015, this piece, featuring songs from the classic French and American songbooks, tells the story of a French actress and an American musician, both of whom have a connection to Paris. 

The importance of music within the piece is paramount, and with that in mind, cast member Orlando Seale, who is currently playing Gerard in the play, took a little bit of time out of his schedule of rehearsals and performances, to talk about his own relationship to music, the experience of working on a work-in-progress, and his affinity for Paris. 

'I think the audience reactions have been really positive' Seale says of the work-in-progress nature of the piece. 'It’s not supposed to be a performance, in a sense, it more just showing 5 or 6 days' worth of rehearsals.' Fascinatingly, because of the ever changing nature of the piece, it's very likely that what audiences who come later in the run see will be very different to what audiences saw at the beginning of it. Seale explains that he does what he can to explore the piece, and revels in the evolution of the show, explaining that 'they’re taking things out, putting new things in, trying different things out, and Bruce [Guthrie] the director has been really clear with the audience about that, so the audience has been very supportive. They’ve been coming in with a spirit of understanding that this is very much a work-in-progress, and it might change radically.'

That approach very much reflects Seale's attitude towards his own musical creations, which he described as 'post punk DIY stuff'. It's refreshing to hear the actor's views on how creating music should be accessible to everyone, with him expressing that 'I like the idea of everyone making music. You don’t have to qualified in some special way to do it. Of course it helps, but it’s nice the idea that everyone can get up and sing a song.'

And Seale's musical beginnings are a result of just that, as he describes how he didn't study a musical instrument in school, but was lucky enough to be invited to join the school band nevertheless. However, his obsessions with creating music didn't start until much later, when he was living in Los Angeles, and his then-girlfriend introduced him to a whole host of amazing music. He recalls driving around L.A in his car, his own personal soundbooth, 'I’d always written poetry and things, and I started wanting to see if I could sing songs. It partly came out of feeling like I wanted to make things of my own, that weren't just dependent on being cast. I became completely obsessed and I couldn’t stop'.

Seale recalls enjoying working on music projects, and finding himself searching for a way to combine his love of music and of theatre, having never done a musical before. Whilst teaching at the Associate Studios performing arts academy he was impressed with the hard work and talent of the musical theatre students, and says that curiosity led to him seeking out more opportunities to perform in music heavy pieces. 

'When this opportunity came up I thought it’d be really fascinating to go and spend a few weeks with people who were unbelievably talented, who were at the top of their game, and see how they did things.' As a show which relies so heavily on the use of music, Manhattan Parisienne, sd you would expect, has assembled a great team for its performances at The Other Palace. Seale is quick to praise the musical talent of everyone involved, stating that he is 'really impressed by the level of musicianship of all of the players and singers who play multiple instruments, and sing, and dance', whilst also marvelling at the skills of the director, choreographer, and band.

Given the name of the piece, asking about Orlando Seale's personal relationship with the titular boroughs, and of course his answers are extremely interesting. 'I’ve not only been to Paris, I lived in Paris, and I loved it so much. I’m a massive Francophile, and I have a lot of French friends, and I was actually at drama school in Paris at The Conservatoire National Supérieur D’Art Dramatique, so I go back as often as I can. The first time I went to New York was with the RSC years ago when we were on tour, and I absolutely love it. I haven’t spent as much time there, but I’d jump on any opportunity to go back!'

Unfortunately Seale doesn't know what the future holds for Manhattan Parisienne, but suggests that the creative team are taking audience comments on board and are eager to know what works and what doesn't. He is also full of praise for the play in its current iteration, stating 'I think it’s got a lot of charm, and it’s an opportunity to enjoy the American and the French song books, in a really charming way that brings the two together. I love the subtitle that Alain [Boublil] gave it; the songs he wished he’d written. I think that’s really beautiful, and for someone who’s been involved with such enormous hits, that's a really charming and humble thing to say.'

Interview - Ria Jones (Sunset Boulevard)

'It’s taken years but it’s worth the wait.'

26 years after she created the role in a workshop which took place during one of Andrew Lloyd Webber's exclusive Sydmonton Festivals, Welsh musical theatre star Ria Jones is finally getting the chance to play the iconic role of Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard

Having first workshopped Sunset Boulevard aged just 24, Ria Jones is thrilled to be returning to the role now. Especially because, the way she sees it, there aren't many roles out there for older women. 'I think the other one that this compares to is Mamma Rose in Gypsy, and that’s another role that I’d love to play, but apart from that there aren’t that many great female roles. I suppose there's Hello Dolly, Mame, Gypsy and Sunset Boulevard, and Reno Sweeney in Anything Goes can be played by an older actress, but there aren’t as many as when you’re in your twenties and thirties'. 

Recalling how she first became involved in the show during its conception, she says 'I was in Cats and working closely with Andrew Lloyd Webber, and I heard he was writing a musical called Sunset Boulevard. I didn’t really know much more about it than that really'. But soon she would be whisked away to Lloyd Webber's house in Sydmonton, where a chapel in the grounds had been converted into a theatre. 'I spent weeks there working with other actors, creating the role and working on the very first draft, and showing the musical in front of producers, agents and friends who he’d invited over to show his new piece'. Despite loving the score, Ria was fully aware that, being in her early twenties at the time, the role of Norma Desmond, a faded silent movie star in her fifties, was not a great fit. Indeed, when the show opened in the West End in 1993, Norma was played by none other than Patti Lupone. 'I jokingly said to Andrew that I’d do the revival one day' Jones laughs, 'And now I’m doing it in my own right, at the right age, and in an exciting new production.'

Danny Mac, Ria Jones and Adam Pearce in Sunset Boulevard
Photo credit - Manuel Harlan
Of course, this isn't the first production of Sunset Boulevard that Jones has appeared in since her early encounters with the show. In 2016 she made headlines when she went on as the understudy for Glenn Close whilst the show was playing at the London Coliseum. Despite a whirlwind of media hysteria, and some initial grumblings from one or two audience members, by the time the curtain came down at the end of her first show, Jones had totally won over naysayers and went on to receive an influx of rave reviews from both news outlets and general audiences alike. In fact, the response was so positive that it led to her being asked to star in the UK tour. 'Andrew Lloyd Webber was so thrilled when I went on in the Coliseum. He left me a lovely message on my phone, saying how delighted he was and how unbelievable it was that the original Norma Desmond was now playing the role at the London Coliseum. He was so thrilled and so disappointed that he wasn’t there because he was in New York working on School of Rock, I think. But he heard all the reports. Michael Harrison, David Ian and Curve, the producers of the Sunset Boulevard tour, were in for my last show. I got a call the next day saying would I be interested in touring it.'

Despite being a dream role, playing Norma Desmond does come with its challenges, especially when playing the role is combined with the demands of the touring lifestyle. 'I’ve got to pace the show 8 times a week, because, especially on two show days it’s very emotional because there’s a lot of shouting as well as singing, and sometimes shouting can tire out your voice more than singing'. However, for Ria Jones, the thrill of performing in Sunset Boulevard outweighs the pitfalls of touring by far, and her enthusiasm for the show, and in particular, its music, is extremely apparent. 'The score is so beautiful, it’s a cinematic score. I think it’s one of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s best works. It’s certainly a favourite of mine to listen to. I often put it on just to hear the overture and the entr’acte, just gorgeous.' And interestingly it seems that the UK touring production, directed by Leicester Curve Artistic Director Nikolai Foster, is different from past productions of Sunset Boulevard in many ways as well, adding a new element of excitement for fans. 'Nikolai Foster’s vision is incredible' Jones enthuses, 'It’s breathtakingly visually, as well as sounding fabulous, because we have one of the biggest orchestras touring at the moment. We have 16 in the orchestra and with extra padding out in the keyboards, it’s going to sound like a full orchestra, and I don’t think you can do this show on anything less because it would be sad not to, because it’s so beautiful. You need to hear the strings, you need to hear the harp, because it’s written with such detail and it’s so cinematic. You need that full luscious score. With the new set, and costumes, and lighting, it’s just going to take the show to the next level.' And she's also very complimentary towards her castmates, including Strictly Come Dancing 2016 competitor Danny Mac, who she describes as 'lovely to work with', along with musical theatre performers Molly Lynch and Adam Pearce. 'It’s just a lovely atmosphere, and of course you create your best work when you’re happy!'

If Ria Jones' passion is anything to go by then the UK tour of Sunset Boulevard should be on every musical theatre fan's to-see list. Now you've read about Jones' fascinating history with the show, make sure you catch her as Norma Desmond. Details of the tour can be found by visiting

Interview - Bronté Barbé (Beautiful: The Carole King Musical)

'I was always a bit of a performer' actor Bronté Barbé muses, recalling her early roots in acting. 'I remember I was Mary in a nativity play when I was three, and I decided I wanted to be Mary for the next 6 months. I was dressed as Mary and my mum had to take me everywhere as Mary – I think she was a bit embarrassed' she laughs. 

‘A bit method?’ I proffer. 

‘Oh, SO method.'

Bronté, whose previous theatre credits include Princess Fiona in the Shrek The Musical UK Tour, and Nadine in The Wild Party, may be best known to some for her appearance in the 2010 BBC talent series Over The Rainbow, which saw several young actress competing for the role of Dorothy in an upcoming West End production of The Wizard of Oz. After her elimination from the show (which was eventually won by fellow Northerner Danielle Hope), she went on to study musical theatre at Mountview, and has since been seen in many shows around the UK. Now she is taking on the role of songwriting legend Carole King, in the UK and Ireland Tour of hugely successful musical Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, which only recently closed in London.

When discussing the challenges of bringing incredible real life music icon Carole King to life on stage, Bronté reflects that finding the character has been quite a different process. 'It's something that I’ve never done before, and it’s been a big balance between finding it for myself and obviously looking back on research, because I want to stay true to her as much as I can. It’s definitely more of an interpretation rather than an impersonation'. Inevitably portraying such an interesting character on stage has its challenges, 'it spans over a period of about 12 years, and it's sort of plotting her journey throughout that and how she changes.' she explains. It's evident that Bronté has a lot of respect and admiration for the musical and its protagonist, and she admits that some of the songs still make her emotional, stating, 'I really love You’ve Got A Friend, it’s my favourite moment in the show I think – so far. It’s really nice to sing, and it gets me every time, I think "oh god, try not to cry"'.

In fact, one of the element which has undoubtedly made Beautiful: The Carole King Musical so popular is the great songs, such as the aforementioned You've Got a Friend, as well as tunes like Natural Woman, and I Feel The Earth Move Under My Feet, which punctuate the story. As Bronté confesses, 'I’ve had the Tapestry album for quite a long time on vinyl, and I had a few friends in the show – my housemate was in it, so it got overplayed in the house a little bit, but I could never get bored of it!' And it's not just a musical for people who are drawn to music from the '60s and '70s either (although those who are will definitely enjoy the selection of songs which make it into the show'). As Bronté puts it, 'there are so many songs that you don’t even realise are by Carole, or Cynthia and Barry', she says, referring to the vast and surprising catalogue of songs written by both Carole King and her friends, the husband and wife songwriting duo Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann. And Beautiful: The Carole King Musical has more to offer than just great music, as Bronté is quick to point out. 'I remember being so struck by her story when I went to see it. I didn’t know a lot about her personal life. I think she’s an amazing person'.

Of course, for musical theatre fans, the much lauded musical should not be missed on tour, but Bronté asserts that because of its source material, Beautiful: The Carole King Musical may appeal to a wide range of audiences. 'I think, or I hope, that it will bring in a wider audience, because I think everybody has heard of Carole King, or one of the songs that’s in the show'. Yes, it's a fun jukebox musical, filled with great songs, recognisable characters and a healthy dose of nostalgia, but at it's heart Bronté believes that Beautiful: The Carole King Musical is different is some way, and finishes out interview by stating 'I think you go to the theatre to escape for a bit, but also to relate, and I think it’s such an important story that should be told.'

Don't miss Bronté Barbé in Beautiful: The Carole King Musical on its first ever UK and Ireland Tour.