Sunday 10 September 2017


National Theatre, Olivier
9th September, 2017, matinee

As somewhat of a Stephen Sondheim fan, I’m rather embarrassed to admit that my prior knowledge of his early masterpiece, Follies, boiled down to just three songs (‘Broadway Baby’, ‘Buddy’s Blues’ and ‘Losing My Mind’) and a rather sketchy idea of the plot. Yet with this confession also came the opportunity to experience the musical with fresh eyes, and I can’t think of a better first experience than Dominic Cooke’s latest production at the National Theatre. A lavish production, the reinstating of some original songs, a cast of acting royalty, and the simple fact that Sondheim is possibly the most revered musical theatre composer still working today – with the immeasurable clout the very promise of this revival brings it would be easy (lazy) to write it off as a solid gold ‘HIT’ with all the predictability of the gushy fan-cum-wannabe-critic before even seeing it. Yet, in all honesty, this production lives up to those expectations and delivers all the drama, humour, tragedy, glamour, smarts, ingenuity and humanity that is synonymous with Sondheim, with added style and pathos.

As with Company, Assassins and even Merrily We Roll Along, Sondheim and James Goldman (book) subvert traditional dramatic and musical conventions relating to time, character and plot; instead of presenting a straightforward ‘storyline’, their creation is more a collage or moodboard of experience. Part memory play, part vaudeville revue, the seamless cohabitation of the past and the present, the real and the fictional, the glamorous and the mundane lays the foundations for an exploration of the binaries that govern life, and their fractious consequences. The result evokes a haunting and creeping melancholy that all too often cracks through the veneer of the showbiz ‘razzle-dazzle’ of the traditional ‘Follies’ chorus girls, whether that be the fading lights of the aging starlets, the bitterness of a loveless marriage, or the regrets over long-lost relationships that could have been. The fact that all this is conveyed without the dramatic constraints of a beginning, middle, and end, or even intricacy of plot (it’s deceptively simple, even uneventful), means that we are instead challenged to really get under the skin of these characters, and experience things through the fractured prism of their memories and biases – which is discombobulating in its intensity.

Cooke’s production enhances the ghostliness of the musical as the figures of the younger characters’ selves linger onstage, perched upon staircases, or sat majestically upon the crumbling debris of the old Weismann Follies theatre in all their elaborate finery. Vicki Mortimer’s design is a decadent triumph, juxtaposing the lustrous bejewelled and befeathered satin dresses of the chorus girls with the seedy and slightly grotesque setting of the ravaged, soon-to-be-demolished theatre. The bright lights that once heralded the darlings of the Broadway landscape now flicker sadly, and foreshadow (in hindsight) the betrayals and dissatisfactions the characters face, particularly towards the end when the ‘Follies’ sign fleetingly illuminates the inner morpheme, ‘lies’.

The musical numbers are effectively staged by Cooke and choreographer, Bill Deamer; the vaudeville-esque pastiches fizz with glitz and a fond familiarity (‘Who’s That Woman’, in particular), while the simplistic blocking of the character-led songs effuses fragility and emotional honesty. Amidst a starry cast, Imelda Staunton is charismatic and gut-wrenching as ever as Sally, who is living in the past and still holds a candle for old flame, Ben (Philip Quast). Staunton’s ‘Losing My Mind’ is a natural highlight and worth the ticket price alone. Peter Forbes conveys all of Buddy’s complexities and conflictions with aplomb, his ‘The Right Girl’ is punchy and mournful in equal measure, while ‘Buddy’s Blues’ expertly straddles the line between pastiche, satire, and tragedy. In fact, the entire ‘Loveland’ sequence is a masterpiece in itself. After a low key start, Janie Dee comes into her own in the second half as Phyllis’s resentment comes to a head in deliciously caustic fashion with her gutsy, barn-storming number, ‘Could I Leave You?’. Among the great (in all senses of the word!) supporting cast, Tracie Bennett leaves the biggest impression as the experienced and resilient movie star, Carlotta Campion, threatening to steal the show with her belting solo, ‘I’m Still Here’.

After a bit of a lacklustre season for the Olivier theatre, the National has ensured its reputation has once again skyrocketed with this smartest of revivals. Sondheim and the National seem a natural fit, and Follies proves why; Cooke’s understanding of the necessity for both spectacle and character delivers a lustrous glimpse into the underbelly of showbusiness and the spangled warrens of the human psyche. I’ll eat my hat if Follies doesn’t get several Olivier nods/wins come April!

Follies runs at the National Theatre until 3rd January, 2018.

In addition, Follies will be broadcast to cinemas as part of NT Live on 16th November.

Company of Follies at the National Theatre. Credit: Johan Persson

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