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.