Thursday, 7 September 2017

Theatre review: Follies

Follies is probably the best-known Stephen Sondheim musical I hadn’t yet seen, and the sheer scale of Dominic Cooke’s production at the National suggests why it’s a risky proposition for any smaller theatre to take on. Between 1918 and the early 1940s, Weismann’s Follies were a Broadway staple, but the story takes place in 1971, and the theatre where they played is being demolished to make way for offices. On the building’s last night, Weismann invites the show’s former stars to the site for a farewell party and to reminisce about their time in the limelight. In Vicki Mortimer’s striking design the theatre is already half-demolished, and what remains of it is haunted by the ghosts of the characters’ younger selves, who recreate the routines from their heyday, and watch the people they’ll turn into in curiosity and sometimes horror.

Most characters get their moment in the spotlight but Sondheim and James Goldman’s story focuses mainly on two couples, best friends in 1940, now reuniting to find the feelings they had in their youth still haunt them.

Phyllis (Janie Dee) married Benjamin (Philip Quast,) a former politician turned businessman, and they still live in the public eye; Sally (Imelda Staunton) and Buddy (Peter Forbes) are also well-off but live quieter lives, having moved around various US cities. Both marriages have the façade of happiness but both have long-since failed: Back in their twenties, Sally (Alex Young) and Ben (Adam Rhys-Charles,) had a brief affair, and she fell for him hard. Returning to New York now, she’s convinced he’s going to finally confess his love for her and sweep her away. Both the 1971 and 1940 (Fred Haig, Zizi Strallen) versions of Buddy and Phyllis look on as Sally tries to replace a failed relationship with an entirely imagined one.

So while there’s definitely a genuine homage to the original Broadway variety shows, Follies is far from a light and fluffy show. It’s a melancholy look at thwarted hopes and the wrong turns the central characters made in their lives. The central quartet are perfectly cast, Dee and Staunton unsurprisingly standing out: In what is probably the show’s most famous number (thanks in part to the Pet Shop Boys and Liza Minelli,) Staunton makes “Losing My Mind” both heartbreaking and a powerhouse to rival her “Rose’s Turn.” The song’s title here seems very literal, as we’ve watched Staunton’s Sally becomes more fragile and mentally distressed as she’s pursued her fantasy of swapping Buddy for Ben.

But if this is the storyline that runs through the show, it’s broken up by numbers from numerous other visitors to the party: The older Follies team up with their ghostly younger selves for a big tap number; as Carlotta, one of the few girls to continue and succeed in show business, Tracie Bennett gets to belt out a defiant “I’m Still Here;” Di Botcher’s Hattie is one of the few who still seems comfortable in her skin as she’s got older, delivering “Broadway Baby” with tongue firmly in cheek; and even a marriage seems to have worked out OK in contrast with the central ones, Billy Boyle and Norma Atallah as the still-performing Whitmans becoming quick audience favourites. Vanessa singled out the duet between young and old Heidi (Alison Langer and Josephine Barstow,) an operatic number she said nearly brought her to tears.

Her other big highlight was Mortimer’s design, particularly the elaborate costumes which differentiate the show’s three distinct settings: 1971, the ghostly Follies’ recreated routines, and Loveland, a surreal final twist in which Sally, Buddy, Phyllis and Ben find themselves forced to act out their marital woes in an elaborate variety-show dream. It’s perhaps an admission that the show as a whole isn’t exactly cohesive, but on the other hand the fact that about 50% of it is vignettes that pastiche various musical styles means there’s a larger amount of standalone numbers than in most Sondheim musicals.

Perhaps it’s in an attempt to make it feel a bit more of a single, solid piece that Cooke plays it without an interval; I’d say it pays off, but nearly 2-and-a-half hours without a break, especially in the cheap and uncomfortable seats at the front, is pushing it a bit. Still, worth a bit of discomfort to be close enough to get eye contact from Future Dame Imelda during her big number, and Follies overall delivers spectacle with a devastatingly dark heart.

Follies by Stephen Sondheim and James Goldman is booking in repertory until the 3rd of January at the National Theatre’s Olivier.

Running time: 2 hours 25 minutes straight through.

Photo credit: Johan Persson.


  1. Follies, even in the original Broadway production was done without intermission. During the try-outs in Boston, they experimented with one first after Too many mornings, then after the mirror number; but Harold Prince felt the show worked better in one.
    Love reading your blog.

    1. Thanks.

      It does make sense in terms of making it a coherent whole. Loveland in particular comes so out of the blue your best bet is to steamroller it through.