REVIEW: Follies, National Theatre ✭✭✭✭✭

Stephen Sondheim's Follies at National Theatre
The cast of Follies

National Theatre,
8th September 2017
5 Stars
Book Follies Tickets

Folly is an interesting concept: it has fascinated the western mind all the way from Erasmus of Rotterdam’s philosphical contemplation, through the artificial landscaping constructions that adorn the estates of Stowe and Stourhead, Ermenonville and Versailles, to the variety entertainments of late 19th century Paris, and into the area which principally concerns this epic musical divertissement based upon the idea: the expensive and spectacular early 20th century Broadway revues of Florenz Ziegfeld.

Stephen Sondheim's Follies at National Theatre
Josephine Barstow (Heidi), Gemma Page (Sandra), Janie Dee (Phyllis), Geraldine Fitzgerald (Solange), Tracie Bennett (Carlotta) in Follies

Oddly, a lot of time seems to have been spent worrying about whether this show, with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and a book – or at least ‘scenes’ – by James Goldman, is ‘really’ a musical or just some kind of astonishing hybrid failure: its original producer Harold Prince dubbed it a ‘long-running flop’.  While these practical questions have merit, they detract from the actual discussion posed by the work based upon a fictional impressario, Dimitri Weismann.  He, unlike the great Ziggi, who died in the Thirties – is allowed to live on into the early 1970s, just long enough to see the rotted wreck of his former playground one last time before it is hauled to the ground to make way for something more contemporary.  Around him, he gathers under its falling roof a reunion of past luminaries of his company for a farewell party, a slightly macabre gesture, perhaps, and one not exactly typical of glamorous theatre folk.  No matter.  No one here is going to rush to let reality intrude and spoil our relish of this bizarre confection.

Stephen Sondheim's Follies at National Theatre
Imelda Staunton as Sally and Jannie Dee as Phyllis in Follies

A magnificent line-up of talent has been assembled to assume the many roles required.  Janie Dee is dazzlingly convincing in the role of the showgirl, Phyllis, who has risen to lofty social heights – and never forgotten that every moment of her life is, must be, a performance.  In the magnificent choreography of Bill Deamer, who animates the stage with always apt and ever-surprising shapes and movements, her big 11 o’clock number, ‘The Story of Lucy and Jessie’, comes very close to stealing the show.  Her triumph opposes the pedestrian fate afforded poor old Sally, given good-natured but febrile life by Imelda Staunton, who has lost touch with the theatre’s magic in other, more hum-drum ways.  Staunton sings the show’s best known number, ‘Losing My Mind’, with a complex array of emotions, allowing her voice to stray into rough anger, even as Nigel Lilley’s superb band, in the lush orchestrations of Jonathan Tunick (somewhat reduced by Josh Clayton), croons with swooning passion, yearning for the forever lost past.

Stephen Sondheim's Follies at National Theatre
Philip Quast as Ben Stone in Follies

The idea of parallel lives, mirror-images, contrasts and reversals, runs boldly through the large cast of characters.  Thus do these ladies find their opposites in a succession of men: Phyllis has a successful politician of a husband, Ben, who is made appealing and fascinating as well as deliberately brusque by Philip Quast, as well as as many lovers as she finds it appropriate to take; Sally is devoted to her husband, Buddy, given harmless life by Peter Forbes, but she is impelled towards much more dangerous territory, not least in the person of her former fellow artiste Phyllis’s husband.  That might seem an unwise move: indeed, it is pure folly.

Stephen Sondheim's Follies at National Theatre
Di Botcher as Hattie Walker in Follies

The other characters fare little better.  Di Botcher’s business-like, and clearly much more successful Hattie sings of the indomitable optimism of the lonely and impoverished chorus girl in ‘Broadway Baby’, while Tracie Bennett’s film-star Carlotta Campion regails us with a boozy itemisation of her many struggles in ‘I’m Still Here’.  Each number, and there are over 20 of them, is pretty much a stand-alone moment, where a character, with or without support from a duettist, group or ensemble, elaborates upon some telling aspect of their lives, either in the present or the past.  But it is not just two eras that are keeping each other company here; the time zones produce their own people.  Thus does the stage fill with the parading and splendidly attired ‘ghosts’ of the characters’ former selves: this is a tricky ‘concept’ to pull off, and since they have to sing, and dance, and even – sort of – interact with the ‘living’, the show is pulled in the direction of an exploration of the self, mortality, memory, illusion, and a great deal more.  In the absence of any central focus, Goldman has a hard job keeping the game afloat, but he always presses ahead into new territory, even if he’s not always able to keep previous scenes trailing along obediently behind him.

Stephen Sondheim's Follies at National Theatre
Zizi Strallen as Young Phyllis, Alex Young as Young Sally, Fred Haid as Young Buddy and Adam Rhys-Charles as Young Ben in Follies

The chorus is far from omnipresent, however.  Sometimes it is there, and sometimes it is not.  And it is not particularly clear to me why.  That doesn’t really matter, but it does remain one of the great puzzles of this work: who are these characters – really – and what on earth are they doing in the building?  You really have to try and answer those questions yourself, or dismiss them from your mind.  Either response will work.  But you have to be engaged with the show as an audience member; you cannot simply sit there and let it wash over you, like a hosing down with gin and lavender water.  Occasionally, as when the great Josephine Barstow – a brilliant piece of casting as Heidi Schiller – sings the faux-Romberg grand waltz, ‘One More Kiss’, and she gets to duet with her alter ego, the lusciously voiced Alison Langer, all the strings of the plot come together, and – for a few instants – we feel we completely ‘get’ what the show is about.  Then, as always, the moment passes and the spell is broken, but we still retain the penetrating sensation that, however fleetingly, we have actually grasped something important.  And that might well be the key to understanding this piece.

Stephen Sondheim's Follies at National Theatre
Emily Langham as Young Carlotta in Follies

While this show has come and gone, like so many of Sondheim’s masterpieces, time and again on stages here and in the USA, and while its individual components have delighted audiences, as a whole it has teased those who have endeavoured to make a ‘sound’ musical theatre entertainment of it.  Now, in Dominic Cooke’s expansive staging in the Olivier Theatre, the work is given a proper chance to set us upon rather deeper and more searching enquiries; it is allowed to be a play ‘in the form of a Broadway musical pastiche’.  And so it takes us upon its remarkable journey.  With gargantuan designs and lavish costumes by Vicki Mortimer, the stage is alive with visions of past glories, admonished by svelt hints of the modern world that is about to rush in and engulf it: TV cameras, microphones, clipboards.  (Yes, the revolve probably does spin a few times too many, but that may be fine-tuned.)

Stephen Sondheim's Follies at National Theatre
Tracie Bennett as Carlotta Campion in Follies

We hear everything gloriously well in Paul Groothius’ sound, and see it all in the wonderful mix of lights and shadows conjoured up by Paule Constable.  It’s a smart affair, and a deftly executed one.  As we lurch forwards into an uncertain future, tearing down the framework that has brought this country the greatest prosperity it has ever known, we should reflect that, when we come to look back on our careers, will we be able to do so with anything like the aplomb and panache of these heroes of the Follies?  Or will we have other songs to sing?

Take a look at Follies Prduction Images at the National Theatre.


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