BWW Review: FOLLIES, National Theatre
Theatre has a long memory. Stephen Sondheim and James Goldman's 1971 musical has been through myriad incarnations, donning and shedding numbers, an interval, an ill-conceived upbeat ending, and yet the original vision has lingered. The show now comes to extraordinary life in a blockbuster National Theatre revival that proves Follies isn't just still here - it's thrilling, heartrending and utterly vital.
Of course, past and present crucially intermingle in Goldman's poignant book, as the former stars of Weismann's (read Ziegfeld's) Follies, a hit revue between the wars, reunite in a crumbling New York theatre soon to be demolished and replaced with an office block. Their younger selves shadow and haunt them, seeming to emerge from the very fabric of the building.
The reunion forces everyone to take stock: are there where they imagined they would be 30 years ago, and if they're not happy now, what went wrong? Ben is a moneyed politician and wife Phyllis the consummate society hostess; Buddy a travelling salesman who had two sons with wife Sally. But Ben and Sally were once lovers, and life choices are sharply readdressed during a long, soul-searching night.
Dominic Cooke's straight-through production thoughtfully uses the theatrical setting as both emotional exploration - how we put on an act, mask the truth with bright smiles and jazz hands, or play the role carved out for us - and as a gorgeously evocative lost world that burns brighter when wistfully recalled. The ghosts embody roads not taken, the self fractured and torn. Yet nostalgia can prove fatal.
The Olivier's revolve really feels choreographed, sweeping around Vicki Mortimer's set: the jagged brickwork of the shattered theatre walls, neon lighted sign blinking into life, backstage to front, feathers and beads to alumni sashes, reality to dream and memory - physicalising the whirlwind polyphonic drama. It links together the show's vignettes, covering the odd lull or lapsed transition and maintaining a clear thematic arc.
Each character in that drama is beautifully distinct thanks to a sensational 37-strong cast. There are shades of her superlative Momma Rose in Imelda Staunton's Sally - the eager chorus girl who wants something too much, and rather than admitting its passing, continues to rage against the world that denies her.
In this case it's Ben, or at least the idea of who she might have been if he'd chosen her. When he invites her into an embrace, Staunton's Sally cycles her arms furiously - propelling but not moving, as if unable to cross the threshold of fantasy. There's nothing cosy about that great standard "Losing My Mind"; here, it's fierce, the words spat out, almost too raw to bear.
In contrast, Janie Dee's Phyllis is cool and sleek, landing wry barbs about her perfectly curated yet empty life. But Dee's vocal command means she can build layers of emotion into the bitingly caustic "Could I Leave You?", articulating each quip with eloquent precision, and her dancing is equally impressive in the big set-piece "The Story of Lucy and Jessie".
Philip Quast, another dexterous vocalist, carefully exposes the insecurities of suave Ben, dismantling his "The show must go on" relentless drive (quite literally, bewildering a top hat-and-tailed chorus) and revealing the callousness of a hungry kid who made false promises.
Peter Forbes is an affecting opposite, his Buddy big-hearted and wild-eyed as he presents the agony of being in love with the woman who doesn't want him - not the one who does - through eviscerating vaudevillian clowning.
The young quartet are perfectly cast, particularly Alex Young as a feverishly neurotic Sally, who wants to "curl up inside [Ben] and disappear", and Zizi Strallen as an ambitious, high-kicking Phyllis determined to become the wife Ben needs.
The stellar ensemble take turns stopping the show: Di Botcher giving a dynamite rendition of "Broadway Baby"; Tracie Bennett making showbiz survival anthem "I'm Still Here" a roar of defiance; the great operatic soprano Josephine Barstow exquisitely duetting with her younger self (Alison Langer); and Dawn Hope leading tapping mirror number "Who's That Woman", as the Follies girls, past and present, trade places and unite in a seamless chorus line.
The latter is one of several phenomenal pieces of work from Bill Deamer. Just as the score riffs off music of the era and the book teases its period American ideals, his choreography is teeming with references, but similarly nuanced - always dipping beneath the razzle dazzle to the person searching for who they are and how to express what they want.
Credit, too, to Nigel Lilley's magnificent brassy orchestra, delivering Jonathan Tunick and Josh Clayton's textured orchestrations. Sondheim super-fans will certainly consider it worth the wait, but for the dedicated and uninitiated alike, it's simply spectacular theatre.
Photo credit: Johan Persson