Tag Archives: Imelda Staunton

Follies – National Theatre

Follies, National Theatre

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


Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf – Harold Pinter Theatre

The room is set and the bar is fully stocked so brace yourself for one of the most vicious battles ever staged – we’re all going to George and Martha’s, and it’s going to be a very bumpy night! Edward Albee’s 1962 play, revived at the Harold Pinter Theatre, has lost none of its capacity to shock as two couples trade unendurably bitter barbs at an academic after-party. Its a scathing presentation of long marriage, staled and sharpened by years of frustrated ambition, disappointment and a genuine desire to cause pain makes for uncomfortable but electrifying viewing in James Macdonald’s new version.

One night after a welcome event for new Faculty members, Nick and Honey are asked to the home of George, Associate Professor in the History Department, and his wife Martha who happens to be the university President’s daughter. Already partially sozzled and well-past midnight, these semi-strangers engage in reserved conversation, but as the drinks flow all too freely, the façade is shattered as Martha’s alcoholism and George’s years of battering turn into a malevolent battle of one-upmanship, sweeping the young newbies into their terrible game. As the endless night rolls on, the claws come out, truths are told and illusions irrevocably shattered.

Academic life is always a fascinating area to examine – a group of people thrown together sometimes for decades in an enforced hierarchy allowing egos to collide and under constant pressure to perform, their future dependant on their continued ability to direct and influence their area of study. No wonder then that many writers have attempted to unpick the feuds and foibles of this close community, from Henrik Ibsen who focuses on the competition for academic promotion and publication in Hedda Gabler to David Lodge’s series of comedy novel that show university life and the partner swapping whirlwind of conferences.

Albee’s approach combines these to examine not just the bullish scramble for position among male academics George and Nick who are instantly wary of one another, but opens out its far-reaching effect on their ‘civilian’ wives Martha and Honey – with Martha representing years of coming second to the pursuit of intellectual thought in both the eyes of her husband and, crucially, her father. So this is also a play about the nature of relationships between people coming from different perspectives who want different things.

The reference to Hedda Gabler then becomes crucial, and anyone who has seen the superb Ivo van Hove version at the National will see the complementarities between that play and this story of George and Martha. Hedda and Martha are women trapped by societal convention into marriages that will never make them happy, but neither can exist in isolation – they need the conflict, the chance to flirt, driven by the energy of the combustible nature of their relationships and the chance to exert their power over others, meddling with lives for fun. Had Hedda’s story not turned out as it did, had she stayed frustratingly married to Tesman for 20 years, it is not inconceivable that cruel, alcoholic and raging Martha would be the result.

While it may be difficult for many to shift their thoughts from Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in the well-known film adaptation, Imelda Staunton and Conleth Hill successfully banish all thoughts of earlier incarnations with a fresh and deadly take on the warring couple. Hill’s George is seemingly a weakling, constantly belittled and worn down by his wife’s endless scorn, while Martha is brutal, unrelenting and acid tongued, but with Staunton’s incredible touch for showing the more broken inner life of someone who in lesser hands would be all-monster.

To reference another famous pairing, they have a touch of the future Macbeths; imagine they had never killed Duncan and assumed his throne. Had Macbeth refused his lady’s entreaties and remained the Thane of Glamis, all that childless ambition would turn upon itself, the once close and happy couple would be torn to shreds by her distaste for her husband’s cowardice, and his quiet resentment of her aversion to his scruples. This is what Hill and Staunton give us in their layered and cultivated performance.

Staunton has had an impressive couple of years with Gypsy catapulting her to a new level of popular acclaim and award success, building on an already varied and successful career. As Martha, she captures the many conflicting aspects of the character – the downtrodden wife and the sexy vamp, curdled femininity and masculine aggression – which constantly shifts the audience perspective on who this woman really is. We never fully sympathise with anyone, all in their own way venal and calculating, but Staunton shows us clearly how this Martha came to be. And it’s a gripping performance as she slithers from self-pity to sexual provocation, manipulating the affections of her guests, but they can’t turn their back for instant because her bitter recriminations are as sharp as a carving knife in their back.

Hill’s George is also a world away from Richard Burton’s more forceful performance in what felt more like a marriage of equals. Here, instead, the milder George has endured years of abuse for his lack of advancement beyond Associate Professor, something he seems resigned to and while occasionally hitting back with remarks on Martha’s age, it’s clear she has more power to hurt him. So, instead in the first two acts we see George’s continual degradation at Martha’s hand – and even to some extent fighting a losing battle with Nick – and while they seem to have played all these games before, tonight they go too far and something in George snaps which Hill convincingly portrays as a man pushed to extremes and reaching his limit of endurance. What follows feels like a restoration in George’s masculinity and position as Hill calmly navigates the aftermath of an explosive night.

The visitors make for an equally interesting pairing, not wide-eyed with shock at their host’s behaviour but faintly embarrassed and harbouring troubles of their own. Luke Treadaway’s Nick begins the evening with the perfect life – handsome, intelligent, beautiful wife and new job with everything to aim for and as he talks awkwardly with George, Treadaway offers the first hints of his deep ambition and growing arrogance. During the night Nick’s initial discomfort is swept aside by an inability to leave until his has fully charmed his host (or more particularly the hostess) and got them to believe in his fictional veneer. But again Martha is too canny for him and when given a opportunity to go home or stay and advance his career by indulging the President’s daughter, Nick makes his choice and seals his fate. Treadaway shows us Nick trying to cling on to his smooth and decent image but there are clear hints that his future is now out of his hands.

Likewise Imogen Poots’s syrupy Honey is almost a cliché when she first arrives, overly charming, innocent and rather oblivious to what’s going on. But she and Nick have their own less than moral history as the truth about their marriage and early relationship comes out. Poots has less stage time than the other characters but it’s enough to see Honey become wilful, angry with her husband for revealing their secrets and resentful of his lecturing. As they stagger home at dawn Treadaway and Poots show us a young couple facing a possible future as George and Martha, will their already cracked relationship lead them down the same path or has the night before given them enough warning to change their ways?

Tom Pye’s one-room set is a fairly traditional-looking academic home in the 60s full of books, objects and soft furnishings which give the cast plenty of places to move around and add variety to a long evening, and is simple enough not to take anything away from the verbal sparring. However with Ivo van Hove showing us the power of Ibsen and Miller without the clutter it would be interesting to see what it could look like denuded of its normal period setting, but that’s for another day.

This is a very wordy play and across three acts in three hours it makes for uncomfortable viewing. Macdonald’s direction is crisp, creating a sense of claustrophobia and increased loss of control as the evening wears on, which make each wince-inducing volley both so difficult to watch and simultaneously fascinating, as the tension ramps up and we wait to see how far the characters will really go. And in its display of animalistic mauling – Martha at one point is told to wipe the blood from her mouth – Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf has lost none of its ability to genuinely shock. Just don’t try to drink along!

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is at the Harold Pinter Theatre until 27th May. Tickets start from £15 but there are ATG booking fees to be aware of and there is a daily TIX ticket lottery. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


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