Follies review at the National Theatre, London – ‘not just triumphant, but transcendent’
Regularly topping lists of all-time best shows, Stephen Sondheim’s 1971 musical has spawned some of the composer’s biggest hits, songs employed with eye-rolling predictability in audition rooms and Sondheim revues around the world.
Even if that acclaim is fully deserved – and Dominic Cooke’s production shows that it is – the scant opportunity that UK audiences have had to actually see the show also makes it rather unexpected.
The last full London staging was in 1987, with Diana Rigg and Julia McKenzie in the roles played by Janie Dee and Imelda Staunton here. There have been a few concert productions since, and a 2006 revival by Northampton’s Royal and Derngate, but that’s all, really. The slightly plotless structure, along with the formidable costs associated with a full staging, mean that producers have shied away.
Along comes the National Theatre’s production, then, plopping itself into the Olivier after the two critical duds Common and Salome, and leaving in its wake a churning, frothing mass of excitement and audience expectation. The 1987 West End production closed because producer Cameron Mackintosh claimed he could not find anyone good enough to replace McKenzie, Rigg et al. It’s taken 30 years, but it was worth the wait. This isn’t just triumphant, it’s transcendent.
On the stage of an old Broadway theatre, just before it meets the bulldozer, the old singers and dancers who made up Weismann's Follies – based on the real-life Ziegfeld Follies – gather for one last party. They're old now, and as they recreate some of their old routines, the rose tint of their reminiscences darkens.
Chiefly we follow two couples: Phyllis and Ben, celebrities now, and Buddy and Sally who've chosen a quiet life. Back in the day, Sally was desperately in love with Ben, and the pain of this quartet's tangled relationships starts to surface. Younger, ghostly versions of each character stalk their present day incarnations like dogs, except not quite so loyal. Because while the ghosts have kept young and beautiful, their older selves have aged.
The ghosts look hazy, dusty, as if kept in the costume store too long, their gaudy peacock plumage looking worn in Vicki Mortimer’s designs. Her set has two huge brick walls with cragged and crenellated edges, already partly demolished, cutting across the circular stage, while a mountain of rubble, splintered wood and ripped red velvet occupies one side of the stage.
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. There's Di Botcher’s rendition of Broadway Baby, the cheeky grin expressing the irony of this older woman singing as if she’s 17, her voice by turns belting and quietly crooning. There's Josephine Barstow and Alison Langer’s duet as old and young Heidi, joining their two operatic soprano voices with crystal clarity. And Tracie Bennett’s clever take on I’m Still Here, which she sings as a list of her accomplishments to start with, before turning it into a cry for attention. “I’m still here”, Bennett sings, but the stage is empty now and no one cares.
Janie Dee is excellent as the caustic, miserable Phyllis, married to Ben, played by Philip Quast. Quast must have one of the best voices in the world. Sondheim’s melodies are notorious for jumping around like fleas in impossible directions, and they work best when the aim is to act them rather than worry about hitting every note. Quast does both.
Then there’s Imelda Staunton. She has the dazzling presence she always does – there are few people who, at barely five feet, could singlehandedly fill the cavernous Olivier auditorium – but here she funnels it into nervous energy with an anxious smile, before despair and finally abject misery take over. Staunton manages to find character progression in a show which, really, has none.
This musical has always been about looking back – from 1971, when it's set, to the 1940s, when these characters were young. In Dominic Cooke's production, though, it's just as much about looking back from 2017. The show is now almost half a century old. The gap between now and its 1971 premiere is bigger than the gap between the characters' older and younger lives within the show.
While many productions take place in grand old theatres like the one about to be destroyed, this one is in the brutalist Olivier – its clean, grey stone a world away from the red brick of the Weismann Theatre. Follies was always about showcasing the musical styles of the past, but now the show itself is a show of the past, and Cooke’s production explores that. He showcases Follies as a classic of musical theatre just as much as the show itself showcases the classics before it.
With London basking in a little wave of nostalgia at the moment – from tap extravaganza 42nd Street to George Gershwin’s An American in Paris – Sondheim’s deft imitation of Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, pastiche without ever being parody, tricks us into thinking that Follies is an old-fashioned musical. In fact, it kicks that yearning optimism into the gutter. Unlike other backstage musicals, Follies shows what happens when the scenery is dismantled, the adrenaline dissipated, the golden years dented and tarnished.
Past productions of Follies have tended to focus on the show’s theme of regret, of old age reflecting on wasted youth. But Cooke makes this production less about the show’s themes, and much more about the show itself. He doesn’t ignore its reputation as one of the greatest musicals ever written, he celebrates it. The result is some Platonic ideal of Follies – and 2 hours 15 minutes of goosebumps.