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Follies at the National Theatre – review round-up

Janie Dee, Imelda Staunton and Zizi Strallen in Follies at the Olivier. Photo: Tristram Kenton Janie Dee, Imelda Staunton and Zizi Strallen in Follies at the Olivier. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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After a torrid few months hosting Yael Farber’s Salome and DC Moore’s Common, the Olivier is crying out for a hit. Its autumn offerings start with a bang, with Rory Mallarkey’s Saint George and the Dragon opening on October 11, after Dominic Cooke’s highly anticipated revival of Stephen Sondheim and James Goldman’s 1971 Tony-winning musical Follies.

For a musical as fabled as Follies, it’s been a long time coming. British audiences haven’t been treated to a full-scale London run since 1987, when Cameron Mackintosh’s production, under Mike Ockrent’s direction, scooped up the Olivier for best musical.

Cooke’s concoction has all the right ingredients – a hefty budget for designer Vicki Mortimer, a classic score for musical director Nigel Lilley, a vast stage for choreographer Bill Deamer, and a star-laden cast featuring Olivier winners Janie Dee and Imelda Staunton, the latter making her first musical appearance since Gypsy.

But will Follies live up to the hysterical hype surrounding it? Will Sondheim’s songs still stir 46 years later? Will Cooke, who’s never directed a musical before, provide Rufus Norris with a precious Olivier hit?

Fergus Morgan rounds up the reviews.

Follies – Bittersweet Broadway Babies

Photo: Tristram Kenton

Sondheim’s story is set on the dusty, derelict stage of an old Broadway theatre. The cast of an inter-war revue Weismann’s Follies – read the real-life Ziegfeld’s Follies – reunites on the eve of the theatre’s demolition to reminisce and rekindle old flames, dogged by ghosts from the past.

It is famously wobbly in structure, more pastiche-stuffed paean than plot, but widely loved nonetheless. Does Cooke’s interval-less revival realise Follies’ faded glory?

You bet. For Tim Bano (The Stage, ★★★★★), it “isn’t just triumphant, it’s transcendent”, for Paul Taylor (Independent, ★★★★★), it “surpasses even your wildest dreams for this show”, and for Sarah Hemming (Financial Times, ★★★★★), it’s “spectacular, sassy, sorrowful and ultimately deeply sad.”

“The danger of Follies is that it can easily succumb to nostalgia, a tribute to a vanished showbiz glamour,” explains Michael Billington (Guardian, ★★★★★). “But, while Vicki Mortimer’s design combines theatrical debris and peacock splendour and Bill Deamer’s choreography evokes the period precision of classic dance routines, the production never lets you forget the astringent sadness beneath the spectacle.”

Andrzej Lukowski (Time Out, ★★★★★) agrees, calling the show “a perfect, devastating evocation of the pain of looking back”, while Henry Hitchings (Evening Standard, ★★★★) labels it “a genuinely fascinating study of the dangers of nostalgia”.

“It’s a loving homage to the theatre of the 1920s and 1930s,” adds Alice Saville (Exeunt). “But it’s also a reworking of it that’s smarter than those shows ever were, a coherent attempt to paint in the wrinkles, the flaws, the emotional complexities that those smiling showgirls had no space to show.”

“You understand what Sondheim is saying, why it matters,” chimes Dominic Cavendish (Telegraph, ★★★★★). “Through an arcane framework, he gets to the heart of the hauntings that stalk us all as life goes by: coulda, shoulda, oughta – the people we once were, or could have been, the roads travelled, the turnings missed.”

“Follies may not be an uplifting musical and it’s certainly not a perfect one,” concludes Sarah Crompton (What’s On Stage, ★★★★). “But in its devastating picture of the way the dreams of youth turn to the bitterness of age, it is a truly terrific one.”

Follies – Bygone Beauty

Geraldine Fitzgerald in Follies. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Follies stands the test of time, then, and Cooke’s production packs a powerful punch. Do Mortimer’s design, Deamer’s choreography, and Lilley’s musical direction similarly impress?

“It’s a case here of knockout after knockout over an unbroken two-and-a-quarter hours,” asserts Taylor. “The hairs on the back of my neck were begging for mercy for they got barely a moment’s peace.”

“Every 10 minutes or so there’s another stunner of a set piece, sung impeccably by the insanely strong cast, with tight tap routines choreographed by Bill Deamer,” concurs Bano. “Two hours 15 minutes of goosebumps.”

And these sentiments are matched all round, almost. David Nice (The Arts Desk, ★★★★★) recalls that “you leave giddy with the richness and complexity of it all” and Ann Treneman (Times, ★★★★) labels Follies “a beguiling mix of extravaganza and emotion”.

“The audacious final sequence, in which the four leads’ final fates are revealed in a phantasmagoric revue show, is as overwhelmingly opulent as you could hope for, a whirl of sumptuous pastel outfits, spectacular dancing and astringent song,” describes Lukowski.

It’s only Quentin Letts (Daily Mail, ★★★★) and Libby Purves (TheatreCat, ★★★★) that air minor gripes, Letts bemoaning a “lack of narrative drive” and Purves, although praising “a grand entertaining evening”, confessing that “the eyes stay dry”.

Follies – Who’s That Woman?

Janie Dee and Imelda Staunton in Follies. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Alongside Staunton and Dee are Philip Quast and Peter Forbes, plus a supporting cast 33-performers strong. And, apparently, they’re all excellent – “sensational”, according to Marianka Swain (Broadway World, ★★★★★) and “note-perfect”, according to Nice.

There’s heaps of praise for Dee – “pure class, with breathtaking timing on her acidic delivery”, says Mark Shenton (London Theatre, ★★★★★) – for Quast, who Bano reckons “must have one of the best voices in the world”, and for cast members Josephine Barstow and Tracie Bennett.

But Staunton is the star of this ensemble, this “iron-strong cast of female performers”, as Saville puts it. She’s “unforgettable” for Billington, “dazzling” for Bano, “spectacular” for Saville, and “simply heartbreaking” for Hemming.

“After Mama Rose in Gypsy and Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Staunton “has again taken a classic American role and knocked it out of the park,” writes John Nathan (Metro, ★★★★★),

“At first Sally seems merely embarrassed and disappointed, yet Staunton peels back the layers of her insecurity, revealing how deeply wounded she is,” relates Hitchings. “It’s a piercing interpretation, never better than during the show’s most famous number, Losing My Mind.”

Follies – Is it any good?

Yep, it’s good. Norris has his sell-out Broadway blockbuster, and the blunders of this summer have been washed away in a cavalcade of five-star reviews. Cooke’s production gets the full house from The Stage, the Guardian, the Telegraph, Time Out, the Independent and more, and four stars from everyone else.

Staunton sparkles at the head of a knockout cast, Cooke constructs a beautiful, bittersweet evening, and after three decades Sondheim’s Follies returns to the London stage in triumph.

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