The Shows That Made Us: FOLLIES

The National Theatre's production of the Sondheim musical was transcendent

By: Sep. 23, 2020
The Shows That Made Us: FOLLIES
Follies at the National Theatre

It's 2017 and I've just moved to London. Through social media I've seen that Follies, whatever that is, is meant to be a hit at the National Theatre. It's an institution I'm somewhat familiar with: for the past four years up north I've watched NT Live screenings, and my secondary school had annual theatre trips there (Coram Boy terrified me).

I'm in my third week of London living and I've secured a ticket through Friday Rush (exhilarating and stressful) to see Follies. I go to the theatre straight from a lecture, happy at this cosmopolitan lifestyle that awaits me: maybe I'll be able to attend the theatre at least once a month, I hope.

Then the lights dim and a young woman (the brilliant Sarah-Marie Maxwell, one to watch), ostentatiously attired with a huge headdress that must make it hard to walk, steps into the audience's view. Drums and trumpets sound as more of these flowing figures emerge onto the set. I'm sat at the back of the Olivier, so can't see much in detail, but already the glamour of this show is set up.

And then, Follies begins. The cast are introduced with brassy tunes and Sondheim's lush overture. It already signals everything I enjoy about musical theatre - glamour, power and strong singing - and that's just the first five minutes! Only at the end of "Beautiful Girls", however, as the cast of almost-40 teasingly proclaim that "beauty celestial, the best you'll agree" is on display, did I realise I was watching something special.

As Dominic Cooke's production continued, I fell more in love with the show and, ultimately, theatre. Philip Quast's charming Ben, Peter Forbes's hesitant Buddy, Janie Dee's acidic Phyllis - all magnetic. But Follies is also a show filled with background characters: Di Botcher goes full throttle in "Broadway Baby", Geraldine Fitzgerald's flirtatious Solange in the deceiving "Ah, Paris", Tracie Bennett's declaration to survive in "I'm Still Here", and Dame Josephine Barstow and Alison Langer in "One More Kiss", a duet that simply represents so many of the show's themes.

The Shows That Made Us: FOLLIES
Follies at the National Theatre

Then, of course, there's Dawn Hope leading women young and old in "Who's That Woman" - Bill Deamer's choreography giving no leeway to the older actors. These women were and are dancers.

By the show's end, I'm invigorated with a sense of seeing something magical. Once I'm home, I spend time researching the show and am amazed at its troubled reception history. When Dominic Cooke's direction made it so clear, how did the book never quite come through?!

Needless to say, I return a couple of times - including my girlfriend and I waking up at 6am to get day seats - before the show closed in January 2018. But then, lo and behold, it's announced it is to come back! Cue a year of waiting and I'm there for the opening night of the second production in February 2019. And, somehow, the cast and creatives have improved the show in ways too numerous and subtle to detail here.

Follies (both productions) was also my introduction to some of the best performers - like Dee, Bennett, and Jo Riding - in musical theatre. I also got to see some of the best emerging talent in the show: Alex Young, Fred Haig, Gemma Sutton, Aimee Hodnett. It's wide casting (by Wendy Spon and Jacob Sparrow) also sparked a desire to work in that field.

I owe a lot to Follies - friendships with fans and actors and occasional pieces of journalism have resulted from the show - but it made me realise how transformative live theatre can be. Thinking about it, it's ironic that a show signalling the death of old Broadway should ignite such a passion, but isn't that the point of Follies?

It's a show that has generously rewarded re-viewings and listenings. Being in the audience on the final evening of the second run, I was aware I was watching something that will not be captured again. The women came down those steps to spontaneous applause - it was the final night of the run, of their characters, of the theatre. It's a show that I adore for its resonance and entertainment.

Friends sometimes poke fun at my love of Sondheim's Follies. Could I leave it? Guess.

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