National Theatre, London
Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by James Goldman
Directed by Dominic Cooke
It’s been a while since the National Theatre last revived a great song and dance extravaganza and a Sondheim one at that. But with Dominic Cooke’s production of Follies the NT’s reputation as one of the nation’s finest creators of musical theatre is restored.
Goldman’s book and Sondheims’s songs build a boulevard of broken dreams and flawed humanity that is as harrowing as it is magnificent. The show’s premise is simple: amidst the rubble of Dimitri Weismann’s once grand Broadway stage, the ageing impresario has invited back the stars of his Follies show from some 30 years ago, for one last hurrah before the building is demolished. As the evening unwinds and the champagne flows old loves, desires and the most excruciating of betrayals are re-kindled and confronted.
The show is first and foremost an ensemble piece - there are at least four stories being told here - but it’s the galaxy of stars that Cooke has assembled, that make this Follies such finely crafted theatre. Sally and husband Buddy (Imelda Staunton and Peter Forbes) re-connect with Phyllis and Ben (Janie Dee and Philip Quast) re-igniting friendships and rivalries that have lain dormant for decades. Storytellers however don’t come any finer than Sondheim and Goldman, with the narrative playing out through an exquisitely mirrored time bend that sees the young, pre-married quartet of lovers simultaneously portrayed by a younger foursome of actors. The National have not only skimmed the cream of British musical theatre in casting the 4 senior roles, their ghostly younger personae are also drawn from the nation’s finest, with Alex Young, Zizi Strallen, Fred Haig and Adam Rhys-Charles weaving the story in and out of the years.
Life has dealt both Sally and Phyllis more misery than they may have deserved, but it is the two women’s responses to their empty marriages and duplicitous husbands that drives the bittersweet essence of this show. Staunton’s Sally is literally crumpled as Buddy’s work flies him around the country in perpetual infidelity. Dee’s Phyllis however is a far more sassy character who’s grown an emotional carapace over the years, enabling her to tolerate Ben’s eminent statesman, yet continually philandering, lifestyle - a man who craves money and recognition above all else and with a vacuum for a soul.
Both marriages seethe with frustration and resentment and yet the show’s dissection of the most complex of loves reveals, in its finale, the couples’ ultimate co-dependency. Rarely is a musical so brutally perceptive and so beautifully performed.
The production’s songs are famous and in this outing, flawlessly sung. Tracie Bennett’s Carlotta delivers an I’m Still Here that comes close to stopping the show. Likewise Di Botcher’s Broadway Baby brilliantly captures a song that defines showbusiness. Stunning too is the soprano duet of One More Kiss, hauntingly handled by Dame Josephine Barstow and Alison Langer.
The four leads have the lion’s share of the numbers. Quast is immaculate throughout, singing a powerful take on The Road You Didn't Take. Could I Leave You from Dee defines her mastery of Sondheim’s inflicted irony, while Forbes’ Buddy’s Blues is a jazz-hands analysis of a man in a tailspin. Staunton is tasked with arguably the show’s biggest challenge and one of the finest 11 o’clock numbers ever in Losing My Mind. Rising to the challenge, she makes the song soar in a tragically understated display of pitch perfect poignancy.
Staunton, Dee and Quast have all amassed a fine pedigree of musical theatre work at the National - and for some of us in the audience, there is an added piquancy of seeing Staunton’s magnificent Sally today, yet also recalling her on the same stage as a Hot Box Girl in Richard Eyre’s 1982 production of Guys and Dolls, a show that boldly launched the National as a musical production house of the finest calibre.
That calibre permeates the show. Bill Deamer’s choreography delivers fabulous footwork from across the wide range of ages (and disciplines) of his gifted company. Upstage, Nigel Lilley deftly directs his 21 piece orchestra to deliciously deliver Sondheim’s classic melodies.
Vicki Mortimer’s designs effectively create the crumbling Weismann theatre, making ample use (overuse?) use of the Olivier’s massive revolve. The show's costumes are a similar treat, well cut to the eras in question and enhanced with some outstanding millinery from Sean Barrett.
Like Weismann’s eponymous show, it’s taken 30 years for London to witness the return of a full scale Follies. The National have a fine history of releasing cast recordings of their major musical productions - let's hope that this show too is recorded for posterity. Follies is as beautiful as it is eviscerating - a masterclass in musical theatre.
Booking until 3rd January 2018. Follies will also screen via NT Live at cinemas nationwide on 16th November 2017
Photo credit: Johan Persson