So sorry to hear of Victoria Wood’s untimely death this week. Having memorised As Seen on TV, Pat & Margaret and most of the Christmas Specials, I can’t tell you how many of her jokes I have ‘borrowed’ over the years. ‘Two Soups’ is up there with ‘Four Candles’ in the canon of great British comedy and how can you not adore a woman who writes zingers like ‘I didn’t know what love was until I bred my first Afghan’?
What I most admire about Victoria Wood is her generosity in giving co-stars such as Julie Walters so many of the best lines. I adore the women lunching in a cheesy Italian restaurant discussing Walters’ husband’s affair. ‘Has it gone on for long?’ asks Wood. ‘Well it must have done’, shrieks Walters, ‘because he said their song was Chirpie Chirpie Cheap Cheap‘.
Victoria Wood’s lack of vanity as a performer was also hugely endearing. My favourite of her gormless but loveable frumps was the blowsy aerobics instructor with a perm you could go trick or treating in and a condom-tight leotard gurning and ‘funking it up a little bit’. We all have our favourite Victoria Wood sketch or song and fortunately they are all captured on film so will never die.
Now, as you know the great Glenn Close is in town performing a limited run of Sunset Boulevard at the ENO. Close is reprising the role of Norma Desmond that she last played twenty years ago on Broadway. The revival is semi-staged which usually means saving on budget and the tickets were a king’s ransom. Nevertheless I bought a couple for Pinstripe and yours truly to see Close attack Lloyd Webber’s most manic, desperate diva.
I was en route to the ENO when the first Twitter notifications announced that Miss Close was ‘indisposed’ and would not be performing. To say the audience was mutinous on arrival was an understatement; particularly when we were told in no uncertain terms that a refund was out of the question. Pinstripe suggested a consolatory glass of fizz which we duly drank.
Just before curtain up, there were boos, calls for refunds, foot-stomping and disgruntled hisses. Imagine how Miss Jones must have felt to think she was going to face a hostile audience of about 2500 people? The ENO is London’s largest auditorium after all. The tension in the house began to relax when the orchestra, dead centre stage, began the melancholy, sinister opening bars of the overture. The sound quality was pitch perfect and the stripped-back set pleasing.
Clever Lloyd Webber makes us wait for Norma’s first entrance so the audience chagrin was tamed by the buff, beautiful Michael Xavier who plays cynical, hard-boiled screenwriter Joe Gillis. His voice was sublime confirming my suspicion that Sunset‘s music only soars in songs featuring Norma, Joe or Max.
The set-up leading Joe into the spider’s web that is faded silent movie star Norma Desmond’s Sunset Boulevard mansion is executed briskly leading to Ria Jones’s entrance way up high on a gantry underneath the proscenium arch. You could literally hear the audience take a collective intake of breath as she appeared dressed like a shimmering Byzantine goddess in gold robe, turban and dark tortoiseshell glasses.
I actually felt a chill because, physically, Jones is much closer to Gloria Swanson – who played Norma in the Billy Wilder film – than Glenn Close. Her voice, too, has that imperious fragility that makes Norma Desmond instantly sympathetic rather than a pantomime dragon empress.
Everyone in the audience was willing Ria Jones to nail her first song With One Look. Happy to report she gave a definitive interpretation that made the Glenn Close recording I have seem overwrought and stagey. There was nothing camp about Jones’s Norma. As she sang With One Look I was reminded of Vivien Leigh’s Blanche Dubois in A Streetcar Named Desire.
When Ria Jones stepped out centre front to punish the final note of With One Look the London Coliseum erupted as one. I suppose we loved her Norma – and it’s a hard part to feel empathy for – but we also recognised an understudy giving her all and asking us to accept if not love her. Trust me, by the end of act one we not only loved but idolised Ria Jones.
God only knows how Jones had mastered movement around the vast Coliseum stage let alone be word and note perfect. I have seen Betty Buckley, Elaine Paige and Petula Clark play Norma and none of them found the nuances Ria Jones did. Norma is deluded. She is, in the words of former husband turned butler Max ‘the greatest star of all’. Norma is in turn cunning, majestic, deeply vulnerable and, yes, endearing. A ghost young Norma reminded us of her former glory.
I could go on for days about the complexities of Ria Jones’s performance. Suffice to say I haven’t heard As If We Never Said Goodbye sung with such depth – it being a three-act play of a number – and I must confess Jones squeezed a tear from me in the final moments when fate is kind and gives Norma the illusion of her return before the Paramount Studio cameras.
When Ria Jones took her bow, 2500 people gave her a standing ovation. From the jaws of disappointment and resentment, she had snatched triumph thanks to guts, talent and great tenacity. The newspapers reported a five minute ovation. It wasn’t. She scored ten.