An utterly majestic production of Sondheim’s Follies is a masterpiece for the National Theatre
“All things beautiful must die”
Well this is what we have a National Theatre for. For Vicki Mortimer’s set design that both stretches towards the heights of the Olivier and lingers some 30 years back in the past; for the extraordinary detail and feathered delights of the costumes; for the lush sound of an orchestra of 21 under Nigel Lilley’s musical direction; for a production that revels in the exuberance and experience of its cast of 37. And all for what? For a musical that, despite its iconic status in the theatre bubble, is more than likely to raise a ‘huh?’ from the general public (at least from the sampling in my office!).
Stephen Sondheim (music and lyrics) and James Goldman’s (book) Follies is a show that has a long history of being tinkered with and more often than not, is as likely to be found in a concert presentation (as in its last London appearance at the Royal Albert Hall) as it is fully staged. Which only makes Dominic Cooke’s production here all the more attractive, not just for aficionados but for the casual theatregoer too. Using the original book with just a smattering of small changes, this is musical theatre close to its most luxurious, and a bittersweetly life-affirming thrill to watch.
Follies is set in the decrepit surroundings of the Weismann Theatre in 1971. Scheduled to be demolished the very next day, a party is being held for the performers who once graced its stages but as present company reunite and reminisce over champagne, ghosts of the past haunt their every move. And what Cooke does is to remind us that we’re all surrounded by memories, the might-have-beens and the shoulda-coulda-wouldas, it’s how we deal with them that differentiates us. And for long-suffering couples Buddy and Sally, Phyllis and Ben, it’s almost too much.
The doubling device is achingly beautiful and threaded so assuredly into the production it seems a no-brainer. So as the 11 showgirls being celebrated make their entrance in ‘Beautiful Girls’ in the present day, we also see their past selves mirroring their movements, making their own arrivals in their own time. The glorious tap routines and kickline of ‘Who’s That Woman’ sees 7 of them hoofing it magnificently with their respective young’uns. And in the case of Josephine Barstow’s Heidi, there’s emotional interaction, a duet (with Alison Langer) on a simply exquisite ‘One More Kiss’, a gorgeous making of peace with the past.
For our central quartet though, things are much more tangled. Past and present frequently collide as Sally’s long-held passion for Ben bursts free with shattering consequences for all concerned, cutting through any notions of faded showbiz grandeur. Imelda Staunton invests her contained ‘Losing My Mind’ with so much psychological damage it breaks the heart, Philip Quast’s Ben is no less shattering as his swaggering Ben steadily loses his composure, and Janie Dee (getting to show off how great a dancer she is) is dry as a bone throughout and cold as ice in a brilliantly furious ‘Could I Leave You?’.
I could go on listing the things I loved – Tracie Bennett’s stunning reinterpretation of ‘I’m Still Here’, Di Botcher’s adorable take on ‘Broadway Baby’, Fred Haig, Adam Rhys-Charles, Zizi Strallen and Alex Young as the younger quartet…but I’ll stop and encourage you to get booking while you still can. There are still some slight weaknesses inherent in Follies itself – its sprawling dramatis personae some of whom we barely meet, the leap of faith you have to take as the show ruptures into its final third – but played without an interval as it is here by Cooke, you can’t help but be carried along a gorgeous wave of marabou, melancholy and musical theatre at its best.
Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes (without interval)
Photos: Johan Persson
Booking until 3rd January, best availability from 6th November
Follies will be broadcast by NT Live to cinemas in the UK and internationally on Thursday 16 November.