An early birthday from my Aunty Jean saw me get to revisit those wonderfully swiveling seats at the Royal Albert Hall for the matinée of Follies in Concert, a semi-staged version of the Sondheim show directed by Craig Revel-Horwood for just two performances with an all-star cast, featuring none other than Diane Lockhart herself, Christine Baranski. Having never seen the show before, I have nothing to compare it too but after hearing the score played by the City of London Philharmonic Orchestra and conducted by the inimitable Gareth Valentine, I suspect I may never need to hear another version!
The set-up of a reunion concert for an old theatrical troupe as per James Goldman’s book works wonders for the show and especially this production. There seemed to be real joy and appreciation amongst the company as they watched their colleagues each take their turn to reprise their former glories – Anita Harris and Roy Hudd’s light-hearted skip through ‘Rain on the Roof’, Stefanie Powers’ glamorous swish through ‘Ah, Paris!’, Lorna Luft’s quirky take on ’Broadway Baby’, Betty Buckley raising the roof with a soaring ‘I’m Still Here’ – whether the onlookers were acting or not, seeing them give each turn hugs, kisses and standing ovations felt real.
The icing on the cake in this sequence for me though was ‘Who’s That Woman?’, featuring a seemingly tireless tap-dancing Anita Dobson and some of the most effective choreography of the show. It is no secret I’ve long been a fan of Andrew Wright’s work, going back to the delectable Once Upon A Time At The Adelphi, and once again he delivered the goods, giving us not just spectacle but real emotion through the dance as all of the women came face to face with their younger selves in a powerfully effective montage that used the movable frames of the set most ingeniously.
The move into the ‘Follies’ of the second half sees the focus settle more firmly on two unhappily married couples with inextricably intertwined destinies, as their true emotions come to light in both the past and present. As the younger incarnations, Laura Pitt-Pulford and Alistair Brammer, and Amy Ellen Richardson and Jos Slovick all got their moments of innocent exuberance but the real power comes with the experience of life. Peter Polycarpou’s Buddy’s vaudevillian smile fading to a grimace, Ruthie Henshall’s Sally breaking every single heart in the room with the controlled anguish of ‘Losing My Mind’.
Birthday boy Alex Hanson did well with ‘Live, Laugh, Love’ to close up but the highlight here came with Christine Baranski living up to my sky-high expectations in ‘The Story of Lucy and Jessie’, full of flirtatious fun as she sat in an audience member’s lap and took a fake selfie, mingled marvellously with the male company dancing around her, and generally giving this London audience proof positive – as if it were needed – of her vastly underrated talents. It capped off a brilliant afternoon and scratched that Follies itch perfectly – I really don’t think I need to see it fully staged now and if I did, it would have to have Anita Dobson tap-dancing in it or else there’ll be trouble!