Benet Catty Productions

Follies (WE 2017)

Oct 1, 2017

NT Olivier

The National Theatre is going through a phase of major stars headlining prestige shows. Their recent revival of Angels in America starring Nathan Lane, Andrew Garfield and Russell Tovey recently announced a Broadway transfer. Breaking Bad's Bryan Cranston leads a stage adaptation of the classic 1976 film Network, which also caused a box office stampede. And at Christmas John Tiffany directs the NT's first collaboration with Disney, Pinocchio.

But none will be as glamorous as this first major revival of Stephen Sondheim's 1971 musical Follies. Featuring a cast of 37 lead by the multi award-winning A-team of Phillip Quast, Janie Dee, Imelda Staunton and Tracie Bennett, plus an orchestra of 21 and a vast revolving set, Follies finally gets the London staging it deserves after three decades being seen only in concert. In the hands of director Dominic Cooke - here directing his first musical - Sondheim's problem musical seems much less of a problem than it is often perceived to be.

Follies is a show without a story so much as a premise. It's New York in 1971 and a crumbling theatre in which the great showman Weismann (read Ziegfeld) used to stage glamorous follies (revues) between the wars is to be replaced by an office block. Some of the performers who once graced its stage return for a first and last reunion in the shell of the old place. The theatre, once a palace of dreams, is now a temple of memories: a monument to what was but never will be again.
The two central couples - Buddy and Sally, and Ben and Phyllis, are having similar problems. They're no longer young but the ghosts of their former selves haunt the place, and they are now able to remember the hopes they'd long-forgotten, not least that each of them wonders if they married the wrong person.

Director Dominic Cooke's big idea is to have the younger selves of the reuniting stars - not just the central four but all of them - shadowed by their younger selves. Literally and metaphorically their younger lives weave in and out of the their present-day agonies, haunting not just themselves but each other. Each of them variously interacts with the person they loved then, who is not the same person they love now. The women recreate a dance they knew decades before and, in one of the show's greatest moments, dance in a chorus line with their younger selves.

James Goldman's book, like the follies it explores, has a tendency towards pith in its fragmentary conversations but, as performed on Bunny Christie's constantly revolving set, there's an easy fluidity to it. It has a wise cracking New York swagger laid over the top of its elegiac tone.

The wonder of Sondheim's score lies in its mix of book numbers - songs in which the character sings their thoughts as they might otherwise express them in speech - which follow the rhythms of speech, and show songs written in the styles of the times without pastiching them. The classic Broadway Baby (the end of which was met with the guttural roar of a football crowd) is an archetypal Broadway show tune; Losing My Mind is a torch song that could have been written by Howard Arlen. I'm Still Here echoes Kander and Ebb.

For all the showbiz that Follies celebrates and desecrates, it's a mature musical about maturity - looking back and wondering, as one song says, about "the road we didn't take", regretting life not being as we hoped it would be when we were too young to know what it could be. And you don't need to be old or artsy to connect with that. The scene in which Quast and Staunton explore what they nearly had, including the gorgeous ballad "Too Many Mornings", is as moving a scene as I've seen in any musical in a long time.

Some shows one should see because they will not be revived again for another 25 years. Others one should see because they will never be staged better. Follies is both. It's a real 'one of a kind' musical - not Sondheim's most accessible, successful or famous. But, as demonstrated sensationally by Dominic Cooke and his cast, it's still here.

Follies will be broadcast to cinemas by NT Live on Thursday 16th November.

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