Tag Archives: musical

Caroline or Change – Playhouse Theatre

Caroline or Change - Hampstead Theatre

Individual reactions to the same show can vary wildly, which is why a single performance can draw a range of different ratings from the critics. When the same production receives both 2 and 4-star reviews your only hope is to align yourself with the writer who most often reflects your taste and book (or not) accordingly. But it is a very different conundrum when a show has received nothing by 5-star acclaim and yet, despite an equally enthusiastic ovation in the room, you’re left feeling cold, or at least less than rapturous about what you have just seen. The top rating is perhaps awarded a little too easily these days, but for an audience it gives rise to a particular set of expectations about how great the show will be and how you will feel about seeing it, expectations that sometimes only end in disappointment.

It is always a strange and disconcerting experience to feel out of kilter with an entire room of enthusiastic fans, when people are giving raucous standing ovations yet you remain firmly seated or clap enthusiastically at every available opportunity while your own hands remain undisturbed in your lap until the final bows. “What am I missing” you wonder as the entire room responds to an excitement you just don’t feel, “how is this failing to connect with me and why don’t I get it”? Well, it is a perfectly normal and legitimate reaction to an art-form predominantly based on interpretation and taste, that sometimes however much you mentally appreciate its technical skill, moments of engagement, over-arching themes and excellent performances, the expected emotional impact never comes – it’s just not for you.

Caroline or Change has absolutely everything going for it, a double transfer showered in stars at every turn. It opened at Chichester Festival Theatre in 2017 before a run at the Hampstead Theatre earlier this year, and now this production makes its way to the West End for a run at the Playhouse Theatre. And that’s not all, it’s written by Tony Kushner whose ‘gay fantasia’ Angels in America was revived to powerful effect at the National last year by Marianne Elliott before heading for Broadway last Spring, plus Caroline or Change stars the sensational Sharon D. Clarke who could break your heart singing the phonebook.

Even the themes of race equality, working class poverty and societal change set against the backdrop of the Kennedy assassination evoke one of the most interesting periods of twentieth-century history. All the building blocks are there for what should be an amazing night, and yet the magic doesn’t come, you feel like the only person in the room who has missed the boat.

With such a well-rehearsed show, despite its new location in the Playhouse, the fact that Caroline or Change is still in previews isn’t the issue, it feels slick, the Company at ease with the music and each other, the show running like a well-oiled machine. So, there must be something in the show itself, in its combined domestic drudgery and social change storyline, and the mixture of pointed political commentary with moments of metaphysical silliness that just doesn’t quite tick the boxes.

Kushner likes this approach and Angels in America, with its frequent dreamlike fantasies and visions of demonic-looking angels crashing through Prior Walter’s ceiling, is a delight, one you can accept wholeheartedly in the spirit of the show. Yet here, the personified domestic appliances that sing to or frighten Caroline are a flight of fancy too far, a touch of children’s television that extends to a talking bus and a woman in the moon who oversees events. Maybe it’s just fun, a bit of whimsy to lighten the mood, but it never quite connects or makes sense. It feels like a dramatic device to reflect Caroline’s thoughts which could have been achieved a hundred more effective ways.

There are lots of musicals about this era that successfully combine the individual and the political, telling an entertaining story with great music while subtly emphasising the social barriers still to be overcome. So maybe that is the problem, if you have seen and loved Hairspray, Dreamgirls or even the songs from Bombshell the fictional Marilyn Monroe musical from Smash, then perhaps a chatty washing machine and a scary tumble dryer just don’t feel as effective in relaying the context of 1960s America and particularly the position of a black working-class women with a family to support

The strangeness of this reaction is compounded by the fact that when Caroline or Change works, it works really well with plenty of fascinating characters with things to say in unusual and meaningful ways. Three contrasting experiences are presented through the narrative; first the upper middle-class lifestyle of the Gellmans, a Jewish family that Caroline works for and the various domestic problems they face as a blended group with different personalities and expectations; second, we observe the politicisation of Caroline’s neighbourhood and particularly her own children who are swept-up in the fight for race equality spreading across Louisiana; and finally we are taken into Caroline’s interior world, broaching the gap between these other experiences as she tries to keep her head down and avoid the change that ripples through the other stories.

The difficulties of single motherhood becomes a major theme as both Caroline and new step-mother Rose Gellman are forced into semi-maternal roles through the circumstances of their lives. Wishing to teach her step-son Noah the value of money, Rose becomes the driving force of the show as she veers between trying to earn his affection while providing the kind of structure and recognition of consequences he has been lacking. Crucially, Rose’s own overbearing father and all but absent new husband create considerable pressure on her to take control without any of the personal support she needs to transition to effective stepmother. This is mirrored in Caroline’s own relationship with the boy that is difficult for the most part but masks a mutual affection that neither seems to fully recognise. And it exists in the distant relationship she has with her own children where, at work for most of the day, her knowledge of them is limited, as though they have grown-up without her noticing.

This leads neatly into the activist community life that Caroline purposefully avoids. A Confederate statue has been stolen as the show opens leading to a half-hearted whodunnit strand that runs through the story, but the assassination of JFK and the race riots spreading through the South become a much more meaningful backdrop, marking-out a period of national instability and change that is mirrored in Caroline’s own domestic disputes. This works really well, offering the characters a different kind of future – not necessarily a better one – while tapping into the Kennedy mythology of a President prevented from achieving the greatness he aspired to.

There is fear about the nature of progress which excites Caroline’s daughter Emmie and friend Dotty, but worries a protagonist used to the idea that staying quiet and invisible is the only way to survive. In Kushner’s story this is one of the strongest elements, a key moment between past and future  reflected in Jeanine Tesori’s soulful music including a collections of songs titled ‘Moon Change’ in which Caroline and Dotty argue about local events and hear of Kennedy’s death, as the personal and political, historical and day-to-day collide, making the inanity of a talking  washing machine all the harder to reconcile.

Finally, it is Caroline’s inner perspective from which we observe most of the show’s events, and here this production plays its trump-card, the wonderful Sharon D. Clarke in the leading role. Everything you need to understand or know about the character is right there in Clarke’s performance, the years of being ground down by a society that has labelled her as a second-class citizen because of her skin colour, the effect of years of poverty and the resignation of a single mother who needs to keep her job in order to provide for her family. Clarke too balances Caroline’s continual turmoil, a desire to keep her place and not to rock the boat with a pent-up frustration that feels ready to explode at any time – abused once by the husband she adored and then continually broken-down by the structures of her confined world trapped in a basement day-in, day-out, her only hope to win a better future for her family.

Clarke shines in numbers including the spectacular Underwater, her powerful and emotive voice lifting the auditorium as the audience feels deeply for Caroline. In those moments you see that all those 5-star reviews were more for the leading lady than for the show itself,  because perhaps the real issue is that casting a star of Clarke’s calibre means you don’t need an animated tumble dryer or bus to tell you how Caroline feels because we already know, it’s right there in Clarke’s whole demeanour and in every quiver of her voice, she is luminous.

The secondary characters have plenty of interesting texture, especially Lauren Ward as the lonely beleaguered stepmother trying to do the right thing with almost no support from her family. A show-stealing Charlie Gallacher (one of two alternating Noahs) brings all the difficulty of his situation to the fore, developing a charming rapport with Caroline while hitting all the right humorous notes in every scene, and revealing a boy who is still coming to terms with his grief. There is perhaps not quite enough content for Emmie, Caroline’s eldest daughter who becomes a campaigner, eager for a new future to start, but Abiona Omonua is a delight in the role with a fresh and eager approach that enlivens every song she performs.

Caroline or Change has a lot going for it and three potentially interesting plot lines that should fully engage, yet it never quite unites as tidily and explosively as it promises to do, the wackier aspects serving to alienate rather than enhance the rest of the story. Lots of people have loved and will love this, and this high calibre production is certainly ready for its press night later in the month, but something just didn’t connect within the show’s structure. It may not happen with this particular show but it will somewhere sometime; if you are at a production that has been covered in praise, know that its fine to disagree, even if it gets a full standing ovation and the whole of the Internet tells you you’re wrong, it’s still ok to say, “this wasn’t for me”.

Caroline or Change is at the Playhouse Theatre until 6 April and tickets start at £20.Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.

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Hadestown – National Theatre

Hadestown - National Theatre

The UK and America have a fairly health theatre exchange programme which every year allows audiences on both sides of the Atlantic to enjoy the very best shows that each has to offer, as well as facilitating the transfer of creative talent. From next Spring, our American cousins can look forward to transfer productions of Ink, Network and The Lehman Trilogy (itself an Italian import) all of which should be unmissable, having already savoured Angels in America, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and Travesties in 2018. In the opposite direction, London has snapped-up Annie Baker’s John and two-part sensation The Inheritance currently enjoying an extended West End run after its UK premiere at the Young Vic. Now the National Theatre has a vibrant production of the musical Hadestown which premiered at the New York Theatre Workshop in 2016.

A little over a year ago it was a musical that rescued the Olivier Theatre from a difficult run of substandard new plays. Common and Salome had reviewed poorly, the much-debated tricky staging proving an insurmountable challenge to these productions. And then Dominic Cooke came in with Follies and made it look so easy, a glorious piece of work that is rightly returning for an additional run in February. Suddenly the Olivier was alive again and whether sat in front row of the stalls or the back of the circle, every heart-aching moment filled this enormous room. Success breeds success and 2018 has subsequently seen the Olivier host a wonderful version of Translations, an engaging discussion of death in Exit the King and a stylishly impressive Antony and Cleopatra which will play in repertory with latest arrival Hadestown.

A much anticipated production that earned rave reviews in New York, Hadestown is a concept album turned stage musical by Anais Mitchell about the Orpheus and Eurydice’s legend that comes to the National prior to a Broadway run. The story unites the travelling Eurydice, brought by the Fates to a particular bar on the day that the Goddess Persephone returns to the world bringing Spring and Summer in her wake. Eurydice, a realist who sees things as they really are, is charmed by the song of Orpheus, a young musician who dreams of better worlds. As their love deepens, Persephone must return to an unhappy marriage with husband Hades in the Underworld, a God of ominous power. With Orpheus distracted by his music, Eurydice is alone and hungry with nothing to sell but her soul.

Hadestown smartly relocates this Greek myth to a pseudo 1920s / modern day New Orleans-like bar, which offers plenty of visual and musical influences that make this such an intriguing and unusual experience. Structurally, the show is narrated by the rather kindly but portentous Hermes (an excellent Andre De Shields), the messenger of the Gods, who becomes the master of ceremonies and wry observer, ushering-in as well as commenting on unfolding events. Along with the three Fates who stalk the action – musically a 1960s-esque girl-group (Carly Mercedes Dyer, Rosie Fletcher and Gloria Onitiri) – Hermes is a reminder to the other characters that their own agency is limited by a bigger plan for them all, which creates a driving sense of inevitability that forces the show to its conclusion.

Along with the inescapability of fate, Hermes also represents our desire to see a different outcome from the same set of circumstances. There is a strong idea of the cyclical nature of the world in various guises, so in one respect we constantly revisit and retell stories like the Orpheus and Eurydice legend applying their meaning to our own times, but there is also a meta-reference in Hadestown to the show itself playing its story again and again every night, as one version ends, another is soon to begin. All of this contributes to a restrictive containment from which the characters can never break free.

These cycles also appear in other areas of the show. Rachel Chavkin’s production is notably about the effect of the seasons, predominantly the recurrent climatic change that eternally rotates fecundity and bloom with deciduousness and decay. The characters come to life with Persephone’s arrival freed from an extended winter that references turbulent storms and prolonged cold, reflecting her own troubled relationship with Hades. Her presence in the world brings warm light in Bradley Kings design, a sense of freedom and happiness that they forget is time-limited, ever hopeful that the cost will be deferred, but Persephone must always leave, even against her own inclination.

The seasonal theme is also used as a metaphor for human ageing and attraction, as the bloom of womanhood in particular fades to be replaced by the lure of a younger option. The is one of Hadestown’s most interesting themes as the God of the Underworld puts strain on his rotten marriage by pursuing the innocent and troubled Eurydice. Persephone’s former glory, the previous allure with which she entranced Hades in a garden is repeatedly referenced, asking questions about the expectations placed on women’s physical appearance, about the unreasonable power of memory and the value of maturity. There is clear resonance with the #MeToo experience as well, particularly in the ways in which powerful men casually coerce and corrupt impressionable women.

The action takes place in two overlapping locations, a bar in America and a foundry in hell for which Rachel Hauck has designed one multipurpose and characterful set that easily travels between the real and devilish worlds with a change of lighting and some ingenious use of the Olivier revolve. Multiple locations are often created across separate sets, turning the full stage to each them, but designers and directors are becoming increasingly creative in the way they envisage its use, most recently with an entire ship’s hull swinging into view in Antony and Cleopatra like a giant shark fin. Pleasingly, Hauck has conjured something entirely different for Hadestown, keeping the main stage entirely stationary while two smaller middle circles rotate at differing speeds in opposing directions.

Here, Chavkin places the ensemble as workman on the outer revolve to show the ongoing and repetitive nature of their daily grind with choreographed segments in Hades’s foundry. Then, in selective bigger moments, a smaller section of the drum rises up to create a platform which has a rock concert glamour that varies the height and tone of the performance, drawing attention to particular songs or moments that require some added visual spectacle.

The music for these ensemble numbers is high energy country and blues with hints of calypso and echoes of Cuban Salsa that make the full cast numbers impactful with strong, memorable songs. This includes the excellent title number Way Down Hadestown, a growly piece that has a down and dirty feel, while the impressive When the Chips are Down reveals the enduring slog of the ironworks and the hopelessness of existence for anyone who sold their soul. Equally enjoyable are the songs specifically for Hades, a Johnny Cash-like country king with an astonishing bass and domineering character that is reflected in the slow, almost spoken rhythm of his numbers.

If Hadestown has a fault, it is the weakness of the lead character and the generic boy-band pop he has been given to sing. Reeve Carney’s Orpheus is a rather lacklustre hero aimed at teenage girls raised on One Direction, but far from the manly hero needed to stand up to the God of the Underworld. There is a David versus Goliath element, but it is impossible to believe that this Orpheus was tough enough to travel from the surface, through the dark and dangerous routes to hell entirely unscathed, while his cool songwriter vibe seems mostly affected.

Likewise, his song is supposed to charm the entire world, and while part of the plot focuses on his development of the music – which he finishes just in time to take on Hades – when he finally comes to sing it in full, your first reaction is likely to be ‘is that it’. Epic II is an underwhelming tune that isn’t even the best song in the show never mind the most important track of all time, one that brings about peace, love and happiness, stopping a terrible monster in his tracks.

Eva Noblezada fares a little better as Eurydice, a much stronger sense of her own independence and a self-sufficiency that gives the character depth. More than a damsel in distress, Noblezada shows us a woman driven to an impossible deal by hunger and poverty, but not quite savvy enough to realise the consequences in that moment, but admittedly there is little chemistry with Carney’s Orpheus, giving their relationship a naivety that makes it hard to root for them as a couple.

The real interest is in the surrounding characters, particularly Amber Gray’s multi-layered Persephone and Patrick Page’s show-stealing Hades. Persephone becomes a highly sympathetic character, and Gray encourages us to appreciate her vibrancy, vivacity and mature reflection, a celebration of the autumn years of the woman who brings Summer with her. She is also a conduit for a comment on climate change, attributed here to her absence from the earth, while Gray uses her proximity to Hades and the breakdown of their marriage to bring a bitterness to their scenes, especially when his eye wanders to the younger Eurydice.

Page is a superb God of the Underworld who uses his strong and easy stage presence to emphasise the commanding and unforgiving nature of his character. With his pale snakeskin boots, there is something coldly reptilian about Hades as he stalks the stage demanding deference from anyone in his path, but Page retains a shred of humanity that makes his attachment to Persephone credible and allows the audience to think he could be reasoned with.

Hadestown is an overall for success for the National that uses the tricks of the Olivier’s stage to great effect and creating the right balance of spectacle and story to sustain its 2.5 hour run time. Its visual and musical innovation makes up for an underwhelming central character, which after a slow start brings the show to life and demonstrates what a great space this theatre can be with the right approach. With productions of this quality coming from America, our theatre exchange programme is looking pretty healthy, and with stars like Sally Field and Bill Pullman heading our way in 2019, there is plenty more to come.

Hadestown is at the National Theatre until 26 January and tickets start at £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.


Theatre Review of the Year and What to See in 2018

2018

After the political surprises of 2016 it was easy to assume that 2017 would be defined by the fallout. For those in the liberal London bubble, the direct collision of old and new Britain, demonstrated at the ballot box last year, caused a shift in the way we see ourselves, a rethink that put concepts of nationalism, power and societal influence back under the microscope, Naturally, facing what felt like a significant and unbreachable rift, instability and economic downturn was the likely outcome, which for the arts, could only mean one thing –  cultural depletion  – as audience seek safety in comfort and nostalgia.

What actually happened in 2017 theatre couldn’t be further from that prediction, and while the revival of great American dance-led shows continued apace, looking back at this year’s very best productions, they were strikingly new. It has been an outstanding year for fresh, and predominantly political, writing with a West End transfer for Jez Butterworth’s The Ferryman, an ambitious technical accomplishment if not entirely emotionally satisfying play about the encroaching effect of the 1980s hunger strikes on a rural Irish family that opened at the Royal Court in May, before making it to the Gielgud shortly afterwards, where its changing cast has led to two run extensions so far.

Just a tad more fulfilling was the first UK production of Oslo, arriving with its Tony Award winning headline from Broadway and a new British cast. Opening at the National Theatre in September before a prompt move to the Harold Pinter the following month, Oslo is a superb and very human examination of the personalities that created an unlikely peace process, dramatizing the complexity without undermining the entertainment value, an exceptional piece of writing by J.T. Rogers.

Undoubtedly, and for productivity and consistent quality alone, this year has belonged to James Graham with two new plays in neighbouring theatres, and a third announcing a transfer in the Spring of 2018. Labour of Love is one of the few new plays to open cold in the West End this year, premiering to much acclaim at the Noel Coward Theatre in September and innovatively charting the history of the Labour Party since the mid-1980s to the present day through the eyes of grass-roots membership, using a reverse then forward chronological structure.

Unpicking established historical scenarios and carefully controlled construction are Graham trademarks, both perfectly demonstrated in his biggest hit, and, personally my favourite show of the year, Ink, establishing the tabloid newspaper’s current powerbase rooted in its quest for populism in the sales war of 1969. A wonderful and unexpected surprise in its first outing at The Almeida in June, Ink promptly arrived at the Duke of York’s in September cementing Graham’s influence on modern political writing and paving the way for his next big show, and my first 2018 recommendation, Quiz, which is heading to the Noel Coward from April after a successful Chichester try-out, focusing on the power of the television media and the nature of modern justice, framed by the Who Wants to be a Millionaire coughing-Major scandal.

Another stand-out piece of new writing this year was a personal examination of the impact of suicide on three generations of the same family that placed women’s experience front and centre. Alice Birch’s Anatomy of a Suicide opened at the Royal Court in June and ambitiously reimagined traditional narrative approaches by telling the three separate but inter-related stories side-by-side, upping the emotional investment, while The Barbershop Chronicles at the National was an invigorating examination of black male experience around the world distilled through a visit to the local hairdresser. And finally, The Grinning Man at Trafalgar Studios arrived in the West End from the Bristol Old Vic just in time to be crowned this year’s best new musical, reimagining Victor Hugo’s dark tale of mutilation and injustice. Genuinely magical, it swept the audience up with its heightened fairy tale quality, charting the story of a tragic outsider to quietly devastating effect.

Emotional and quietly devastating also describes 2017’s best revival, the Sondheim classic Follies that united Imelda Staunton and Janie Dee at the National Theatre. From the very first night of previews, the show ached with regret, disillusion and nostalgia for lost youth that filled the sizeable Olivier auditorium and never has a production suited the awkward space so well. Twice this year, the National has arguably produced definitive productions that will certainly preclude other major revivals for at least a decade, and joining the genuinely heart-rending Follies was the epic Angles in America (Part 1 and Part 2).

Tony Kushner’s two-part 1990s ‘gay fantasia’ was much trailered this time last year, and when it finally opened in a mammoth seven and half hour production it more than lived-up to expectation. Director Marianne Elliot balanced the multiple narratives and hallucinatory elements convincingly, while leads Andrew Garfield and Nathan Lane in particular gave the performance of their lives as men ravaged by HIV.

Andrew Scott also gave a career-best performance in this year’s superstar Hamlet, opening in February at the Almeida before transferring to the Harold Pinter. Robert Icke’s production was a modern, strongly conceived production that despite a few loose ends and some underpowered interpretations of Claudius and Gertrude, gave its leading man the space to deliver one of the most heart-breaking Hamlets of the 21st century.

Another former Hamlet returned to the stage this year and having established a devoted fan-base as a much-loved TV character and a respected Shakespeare performer, blew it all up to play a dastardly lothario with only his own pleasure in mind. David Tennant’s performance in the revival of Patrick Marber’s Don Juan in Soho divided critics and audiences alike with its crude and gleeful take on an unrepentant wastrel. But Tennant’s joyous interpretation, perfectly matched by Adrian Scarborough’s put-upon servant proved irresistible, making it one of my favourite and most uproarious nights in a theatre this year.

With another cracking Imelda Staunton performance in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf at the Harold Pinter, Daniel Radcliffe impressing in the Old Vic’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, and charming returns for An American in Paris and 42nd Street, 2017 has been a cracking year for top-quality theatre. But as we say a bittersweet farewell to one of the strongest years for mainstream theatre in a long time, we can take comfort in knowing that 2018 is already filled with possible treats.

The new Bridge Theatre opens the year with an all-star promenade production of Julius Caesar – one of my favourite Shakespeare plays – starring Ben Whishaw as Brutus and David Morrissey as Mark Anthony which should be an interesting take on well-known tale of power and corruption. The National follows suit in February with Rory Kinnear and Anne-Marie Duff in a new Macbeth that could be the best stage version in years, while more must-see Shakespeare is planned for September with a much anticipated version of Anthony and Cleopatra starring Ralph Fiennes and Sophie Okonedo also at the National.

Another early highlight is the much acclaimed transfer of Long Day’s Journey into Night starring Jeremy Irons and the wonderful Lesley Manville pitching-up at the Wyndhams in January, while in the same month Kathy Burke directs Lady Windermere’s Fan, the second in Dominic Dromgoole’s Oscar Wilde season at the Vaudeville, and soon after Suranne Jones and Jason Watkins take the lead in Bryony Lavery’s thriller Frozen, opening at the Theatre Royal Haymarket in February.

The late spring and summer months also promise much, with a revival of Red starring Alfred Molina also heading to the Wyndhams, while, following the London run of James Graham’s Quiz from April, all eyes will be on the Noel Coward Theatre in July where Martin McDonagh’s the Lieutenant of Inishmore will mark the West End debut of Poldark star Aidan Turner, timed to coincide with the next series of the hit show.

And that’s not even the half of it; later in the year Jim Broadbent will star in Martin McDonagh’s new play about Hans Christian Andersen at the The Bridge Theatre entitled A Very Very Very Dark Matter, the National has announced a version of Brian Friel’s Translations with Colin Morgan, the first London run of the trilogy of plays about Lehman Brothers directed by Sam Mendes who follows his wonderful control of The Ferryman with more new writing, while there is a new play from The Flick writer Annie Baker, who returns to the National with John, and the Royal Court welcomes Carey Mulligan in a new show Girls and Boys, while the Gielgud hosts a gender-swapped version of Sondheim’s Company from September.

So, it may be sad to leave a year of really great theatre, but 2018 has plenty to offer, and looks set to continue the investment in new writing that has been such a feature of the last 12 months. With a constantly shifting governmental landscape and ongoing uncertainty, it’s comforting to see mainstream theatre responding with sophisticated political writing and greater attempts at diversity – that some of the approaches that have long been a feature of the Fringe are finally filtering up. It’s far from perfect and there’s still a long way to go, but with the work of 2017 setting a high bar, the theatre year ahead looks full of promise.

Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1.


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


42nd Street – Theatre Royal Drury Lane

42nd Street, Theatre Royal Drury Lane

A dastardly diva, conniving chorus girls, the spikey director and the talented young ingenue with little experience who just wants to be a star – it can only be a classic Hollywood musical. The 1933 film of 42nd Street became a bone fide Broadway musical in 1980 and is currently enjoying a glitzy run at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane. Maybe it’s the long years of austerity, maybe the political polarisation that led to Brexit, but the West End is a pretty nostalgic place to be right now with An American in Paris, Dreamgirls and even Love in Idleness transporting us back to a mythical time when all that mattered was love, music and dancing. Any night of the week you can be swept away by showtunes, glitter and misty sentiment, and it’s no bad thing.

There is a darker side to all this of course which most of these shows choose to gloss over; for someone to be the star they have to push someone else aside first, and Hollywood loves to explore the, predominantly female, battle between the established luminary and the bright young thing snapping at her heels. It’s a trope used in All About Eve, as Bette Davis nurtured a calculating young fan who sets about stealing her life – a much anticipated stage version will arrive in London next year starring Cate Blanchett – we saw it too in Phantom of the Opera as diva Carlotta must make way at the Paris opera for the more innocent Christine, in Black Swan as Natalie Portman replaces old hand Winona Ryder as prima ballerina, and even Dreamgirls is the story of supressing one band member’s dream to sell another. Showbiz is a brutal world and the next big thing is waiting in the wings wearing your costume.

42nd Street takes a slightly gentler view of this process of replacement, but the outcome is the same. At an audition for a new show called Pretty Lady hardnosed director Julian Marsh is putting the chorus through their paces when Peggy Sawyer arrives late. Initially sent away, Marsh reconsiders when he sees Peggy dance and invites her to join the troupe who head to Philadelphia for tryouts. Meanwhile, unable to dance as well as she sings, star of the show Dorothy Brock’s poisonous attitude and arrogance manages to rankle with cast and crew alike, especially as her private life threatens the show’s finances. On opening night in Philadelphia, Peggy accidentally scuppers Dorothy’s performance, paving the way for a new star to take her place. As Peggy tries to hide from the responsibility and pressure, will the show go on in New York?

The choreography in 42nd Street is what you’ll remember and, as with the balletic style of An American in Paris, this tap-focused show is at its best when all 50 dancers are on stage delivering one stunning routine after another. Like many shows of its era, we get to see both behind and in front of the curtain as song and dance numbers from ‘real life’ are mixed in with ones from the fictional show they’re creating, which means the plot is essentially paper thin, and don’t ask me what the point of Pretty Lady was meant to be, but you do get a range of sequences that take in everything from 30s Busby Berkeley and Vaudeville to 50s MGM classic musicals with their everyday singing-in-the-street charm.

As the start, the curtain goes up just a few inches to show a line of tap-dancing feet, and from here on in it’s a riot of sound, colour and cartoon-like characters, painted backdrops, gold lamé and good wholesome fun. The very best sections come from the faux musical including the Busby Berkeley-inspired Keep Young and Beautiful in which the dancers lay in a circle on stage, like synchronised swimmers, using their arms and legs to create a series of intricate patterns, while a large mirror is lowered from the ceiling so the audience can see both the stage and aerial view which is a lovely touch – although if you’re sitting higher than the Royal Circle you won’t see the full reflection.

Equally delightful is the I’m in the Money section as chorus girls dance on with their own round podia made to look like coins which they place on the floor and tap on top of, while the male dancers fill in the gaps in top hat and tails. It’s a dazzling spectacle of white, silver and gold that showcases the increasing complexity of Randy Skinner’s choreography that builds on the original work of Gower Champion, which the cast executes with faultless precision.

But it just gets better and better, building up to the final scene in Pretty Lady, the title song 42nd Street which references the fantasy sequences in several Gene Kelly films. Beginning on a black stage with a spotlight on Peggy, it rapidly becomes the street itself with neon theatre signs advertising shows up and down the famous street while mini-stories of New York life are told around the stage; the sailors, the party girls, the Park Avenue set. The pace and movement build frantically until a gunshot clears the stage and a set of steps unfolds. If you’ve seen enough classic musicals you know what happens next, a show-stopping tap routine with steps that light-up as the full ensemble delivers a rousing finale.

Just like An American in Paris, there is so much joy in the dance sequences that any other problems the show has – including its somewhat old-fashioned and sexist instance on youth and beauty –  just evaporate, and with so many musicals really focused on the singing, it’s refreshing to see two in quick succession that remind audiences what a great choreographer can do, and, in our pared back times, the effect of a stage full of people performing completely in sync.

Given that this is essentially a caricature, outside of the musical numbers the characters haven’t much personality of their own which gives the performers very little to cling on to. Clare Halse’s Peggy is perky and talented with no malice in her. She aches to be a star but the slightest knock has her scampering back to her small-town home. Still it’s hard to dislike her and Halse’s tap talent is genuinely impressive. Stuart Neal as Pretty Girl’s male lead Billy sings and dances beautifully but has little to do backstage but make an early pass at Peggy that goes unremembered for the rest of the show.

Tom Lister finds depth in the second act as scary director Julian Marsh, and although he has no chemistry with Peggy, his discovery of her talent and growing affection for her is well charted, while Lister’s voice is delightful. Stealing the show musically is Sheena Easton as Dorothy Brock, relishing every sneering put down and hissy fit as the diva, but finding real emotion and sympathy in her love songs as she aches for lover Pat in tunes like I Only Have Eyes for You and You’re Getting to be a Habit with Me which are as touching as they are melodious, and prevent her from being a two-dimensional villain.

The pros and cons of a particular show may seem trivial in light of this weekend’s events, and the previous attacks in Westminster and Manchester, but arts and culture have an important social role; they bring us together and reflect our communities back at us, they create empathy, understanding and the ability to see things from another perspective – not just of people half way round the world but sometimes also the ones right next door – and the more we know about something, the less we fear it. So, shows like An American in Paris and 42nd Street may not have any searing political insight to offer, but they tell us that right now we’re missing something, something we almost certainly never had – sometimes we want to escape to a world in which love, singing and dancing is all that matters. And, honestly, what’s so wrong with that?

42nd Street is at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane until 10 February 2018 and tickets start at £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


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