It’s been some time since The National Theatre last staged a major musical and their sensational new production of Follies has been worth the wait. The end of the Nicholas Hytner era and the first two years of Rufus Norris’s tenure have been focused on significant adaptations of well-known plays and new writing, many of which have received considerable critical acclaim. Despite an indifferent summer season in the Olivier Theatre, with Norris now firmly ensconced in his role of Artistic Director, this is a National Theatre at the zenith of its power capable of creating work of extraordinary quality and artistic influence.
Follies is one of Stephen Sondheim’s most loved musicals but revivals have been few and far between. While there may be more Hamlets than anyone really needs this season, the last Follies was more than a decade ago, and, like the recent era-defining production of Angels in America this superlative vision of Sondeheim’s show will surely become one of its best remembered revivals, mixing the wistful showmanship of the Music Hall with the shattered illusions of its four central characters, clinging to false visions and unrealised dreams of alternative lives,
In 1971, a class reunion at the Weismann Follies brings together many of the former singers and showgirls who entertained at the club during the wars at a party to celebrate the last night before the building is torn down to make way for office blocks. 30 years on it’s a bittersweet evening for everyone, as the ghosts of the past emerge all around them, reminding the women of who they once were and where fortune has taken them, with life quelling the hopes and plans they once had.
For Sally and Buddy, now in their 50s, life and marriage has been unremarkable and conventional, with Buddy struggling to fulfil some need in Sally that can never be satisfied. Meeting best friends Phyllis and Ben, a stylish couple whose animosity towards one another can barely be contained, takes the quartet back to their youth where the story of their courtship emerges along with deeply concealed emotions that abruptly resurface. By the time morning comes, the party is over in more ways than one.
Directed by Dominic Cooke, Follies is entirely at home on the grand Olivier stage in what feels like a perfectly created world of decaying glamour. The well-utilised stage revolve houses a two-piece walled-arch structure that contains the faded Follies neon sign, and a multi-tiered fire escape which the girls used to parade down onto the stage, allowing Cooke to show scenes taking place in multiple rooms with a quick turn of the Olivier drum.
Vicki Mortimer’s theme-laden design is purposely used to reinforce the text, whether it be the stacked heaps of detritus on the side of the stage and the shabby theatre seats – clearly referencing the characters emotional baggage – or the almost unnoticeably slow clearing away of the structures of the Weismann nightclub during the production to represent not just the destruction of the physical building, but also the breakdown of characters and their long-held fantasies of a better life, leaving only a vast emptiness to see and feel as the story concludes.
Sondheim’s work is not conventional musical theatre and his first focus (and training) was as a playwright, so it is this emphasis on plot and characterisation that separates Follies from the song and dance shows which have been recently revived in London. Lovely as they are, with glitzy production values and incredibly skilled dancers, An American in Paris and 42nd Street just don’t have the same heart-rending ache of Sondheim’s show. Again and again throughout this production, for a variety of characters, you feel powerfully focused emotion filling the cavernous Olivier space, creating an extraordinary intimacy and impact. It’s a rather amazing experience.
At the heart of the show is Imelda Stuanton’s interpretation of Sally, her second major theatre role this year. Sally has some characteristics in common with Martha from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, who Staunton played at the Harold Pinter Theatre in the Spring, both are in a long and fruitless marriage where love, it seems, has long since departed, but where Martha is openly vicious, sweet and hopeful Sally clings to a decades-long love for Ben, a dream elaborate and embedded with age which she believes will rescue her from the emptiness of the life she now leads.
Staunton’s power as actor lies in slowly unveiling the layers of deep feeling beneath the surface of her characters, and, as with Martha, she quickly shows the that bubby, excitable, chatty Sally is bundle of false hope and self-delusion. Sondheim uses his songs to advance the story and Staunton understands these rhythms so perfectly that the excitable romance of ‘Too Many Mornings’ leaves Sally exuberant at finally having the long-hoped for relationship, while the slow disillusionment that follows is beautifully and arrestingly charted. As Staunton sings ‘Losing My Mind’ it’s so full of a sorrow that it builds to a state of almost deluded madness as her world collapses in on her. It’s terribly terribly moving and physically painful to watch, but astonishing theatre that will stick in your mind.
In the other corner is Janie Dee’s Phyllis, a once poised and gentle young girl who through lack of love believed she needed to continually improve herself and her mind to be worthy of Ben. While she became a good society wife, full of grace and dignity, Phyllis has also hardened, become cold to any form of emotion, even for her once loved friend, and this manifests in a tirade aimed Ben in the song ‘Could I Leave You’. And as the evening draws on, Dee shows us that Phyllis has become an independent woman who knows she can now survive without the husband she’s relied on and looked up to, that the slow erosion of her love for him solidified in this one decisive night.
Like Imelda Stuanton, Dee’s finest moment comes in the fantasy element of the production which takes place in ‘Love Land’ where each of the four protagonists gets to reveal their inner selves to the audience. In the section dedicated to ‘Phyllis’s Folly’ Dee gets a sultry number – ‘The Story of Lucy and Jessie’ – which is a chance to unbutton the woman beneath the surface as she cavorts with her young dancers, for once the centre of attention. This whole section borrows considerably from Gilda and the famous ‘Put the Blame on Mame’ sequence that allows Dee to channel plenty of Rita Hayworth moves as well as physical nods to her wavy red hair and fitted black dress.
Although Follies is predominantly about the memories and dreams of its female characters, with Weismann himself merely the conduit for the reunion of his dancers, the two male leads are given just enough stage time to give the audience plenty of insight into two rather hopeless marriages and the sacrifices all four characters have made to sustain them. Peter Forbes as Buddy initially seems a comedy aside, a genial and supportive husband, sharing his wife Sally’s wide-eyed welcome back to the big city. But as the story unfolds, Forbes shows us a man who’s spent a lifetime knowing he was second best, trying endlessly and fruitlessly to make Sally happy, worn down by the knowledge he can never be the one thing she wants… someone else. His many failures as a partner stem from loving someone who cannot return his feeling and Forbes’s performance ask whether dependability and fondness ultimately outlast passion as the best foundations for marriage.
In fine voice is Philip Quast as Ben, Phyllis’s lothario husband, now a politician and long-time object of Sally’s affection. Ben is a man who has always relied on his allure, and his attractiveness to women makes him feel powerful. In the growing estrangement with Phyllis, Quast reveals a bitterness in Ben that is initially hard to reconcile with his easy charm, but as the muddles of the evening unfold, Quast’s Ben fears both a lack of love and of not deserving it, that despite his façade he is in fact a sham. His voice is beautiful in duet with Imelda Staunton and those mellifluous tones are from a golden age of musical theatre long since passed.
A final note on Tracie Bennet as Carlotta, the only ex-Folly who really made it, now a well-known actress, and a fitting contrast to all the meek and mumsy society wives that her fellow Follies became. Glamorous and jaded, Bennett gets the zesty number ‘I’m Still Here’ showing us Carlotta’s scrappy nature that has allowed her to claw her way to the top and stay there. She may have had multiple husbands and now much younger lovers, but there’s a rousing lack of regret that makes this performance one of the moments of the night.
Supported by a fine cast who each get their song, this National Theatre production has perfectly judged the tone of dark nostalgia, of expectant youth and wasted futures, and the danger of trying to recapture the past – a theme that couldn’t be more fitting in post-Brexit modern Britain. Even the tricky ghost or shadow selves are seamlessly woven into the production and avoid feeling cheesy. Instead, each character appears with her younger self in original costume, allowing Cooke to blur the boundary between past and present, hope and reality as if memories have been given physical form one last time.
Sometimes, a piece of theatre will catch you entirely unawares; you see plenty of good or even excellent work, but every now and then something comes along that generates an emotional connection you didn’t foresee. This heartbreaking production, that has earned uproarious standing ovations at every preview, is a National Theatre at the peak of its power, producing work of extraordinary quality and impact. Even at well over two hours without an interval, the time flies by and it’s always reassuring to see the integrity of the work taking precedence over bar sales. There may not have been a major production of Follies for a while, but with an astounding cast, glorious production values and an ache that lingers for days, this is a production you’ll never forget.
Follies is at the National Theatre until 3rd January. Tickets start at £15 and are also available at £20 via Friday Rush every week at 1pm. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1