Sunset Boulevard: In Conversation with Ria Jones

We meet the star currently playing the greatest star of all, Norma Desmond, in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s ‘Sunset Boulevard’ at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre.

Lloyd Webber's Sunset Boulevard

“When Glenn Close was in town all eyes were on her, so when she went sick it was big news. I knew there would be boos and people shouting for their money back.”

The silver screen makes its way to the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre this week in the magnificent touring production of the Andrew Lloyd Webber classic, Sunset Boulevard. With a new production that oozes the charm of 1950s Hollywood, a full 16-piece orchestra that swells to the heights of the cinematic score and a fresh take on the set pieces, Sunset Boulevard is dazzling.

With a new production comes a new Norma Desmond, the show’s faded silent movie actress. Ria Jones brings a mesmerising depth to the forgotten star, confined to her extravagant mansion and trapped in the past. It’s a big part that could easily go over the top, but Jones nails it.

With 34 years of musical performance under her belt, Jones has starred in everything from Les Miserables to Cats, and although Patti Lupone is best known for first playing Norma Desmond, she was the woman who starred in the very first version of Sunset.

“When I was 24 years old and I was asked by Andrew Lloyd Webber to create the role of Norma Desmond at Sydmonton, his home in Barkshire,” she tells me. “He has a chapel in the grounds converted into a little theatre so whenever he writes a new piece he invites producers, agents, friends to come and watch it and then discuss it afterwards. So that was the first ever workshop of it.”

“It was fascinating watching him work and create this role and this show; it was really special. I was going through my paper work the other day and I found a letter that Andrew wrote to me, saying, ‘Thank you for bringing Norma Desmond to life’. It was dated 1991. I remember joking with him once that maybe one day I would get to do the revival. Fast forward 26 years.”

A member of the LGBT+ community, Jones has been performing on the West End since the 80’s. Last year, she faced the near-impossible task of stepping in for Glenn Close as her understudy during Sunset’s run at the English National Opera.

“When Glenn Close was in town all eyes were on her, so when she went sick it was big news,” says Jones. “I knew there would be boos and people shouting for their money back. Then I just thought, ‘I’ve worked hard my whole career for this moment, I’m not going to just let it go’, so I went out there with all guns blazing.

“At the end of the first song they went crazy. It was quite emotional and very overwhelming, but I thought ‘I’ve got them on my side now, I’ve got another two hours to go, just stay true to the character, stay true to Norma Desmond, concentrate on her and her journey, not yours’.”

“By the end of the show they went crazy. I went on for four shows and that changed everything. I’ve been doing this for 34 years now professionally, so a lot of people think it was overnight but it wasn’t overnight for me – it was a long journey to there.

“People were ringing up the box office to see if I was on instead of Glenn. It was crazy. Michael Harrison, one of the producers of this tour, was in the audience of my last show and he rang me the next day and said we must take this on tour, so he got the rights from Andrew and here we are! I couldn’t turn this down because I wanted to make her my own, put my stamp on her and be a part of the history of this wonderful show.”

For an actress and character to be as entwined as Jones and Desmond, it’s no surprise that Jones’ performance is so rich.

“You can wait your whole career for a role that might never come along,” she says. “For me, this is the role,” she says. “That sounds very dramatic, but it is. There was a time in my 40s where I was thought ‘what’s left’? There aren’t that many big roles for older women and then this came along and here we go. And that’s the show; it’s all about that.”

Don’t miss ‘Sunset Boulevard’ in the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre until November 25, tickets here.

© 2017 GCN (Gay Community News). All rights reserved.

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