Friday, 29 September 2017

Follies

Demanding but rewarding, an unmissable revival of Sondheim’s tale of heartbreak and long-faded happiness

Written by Richard Barber
Some musicals are unapologetic wall-to-wall entertainment, an excuse to take you out of yourself. Think 42nd Street. Some are lovely, lyrical escapes, the soaring score matched by delirious dancing. Think An American in Paris. And some, but not many, make you think. Richard-Barber-colour-176

Just such a one is Stephen Sondheim’s Follies, revived at the National for the first time in London since 1987 in a matchless production directed by Dominic Cooke. It has divided critics and audiences alike since its debut on Broadway in 1971, where it lost money, leaving its composer and lyricist crying in a dressing room.

If Sondheim should get himself to the Olivier, it’s unlikely he’ll be reduced to blubbing – except perhaps tears of joy. A full house rose to its feet as one at the curtain and it wasn’t hard to see why. Even so, this is a slow burner which demands your attention over a solid two-and-a-quarter hours (there’s no interval).

It’s the early 1970s and we’re backstage at a crumbling theatre that’s about to be demolished for an office block. The now middle- aged and older showgirls, once part of Weismann’s Follies, have returned for a final nnostalgic party.

The mood is celebratory crossed with wistful, a tone that pervades the evening. Here is the now well-covered Hattie Walker (Di Botcher) at her dressing-room mirror, although not for long, belting out Broadway Baby. Here is Carlotta Campion (Tracie Bennett), now a film star determined to stay in the spotlight, and given one of the show’s standout numbers, I’m Still Here. And here is Weismann’s former lover, Heidi Schiller (the distinguished soprano Josephine Barstow), singing an exquisite duet with her younger self, played by Alison Langer.

But the main action revolves around two couples: Sally and Buddy, and Phyllis and Ben. Sally has always carried a torch for Ben, the man she felt – still feels – she should have married. Disappointments and infidelities have taken their toll on both marriages, something brought to vivid life as, onion-like, the individual layers are peeled away.

Peter Forbes perfectly captures the slightly over-eager travelling salesman, Buddy. Philip Quast plays the passed-over, womanising politician, Ben, to perfection and you could listen to his beautiful voice all evening. Janie Dee, as whiplash-smart, hard-boiled Phyllis, delivers Could I Leave You with precisely the right punchy irony. And the faultless Imelda Staunton as Sally will have you reaching for your handkerchief with the musical’s best number, Losing My Mind. Not an easy evening, then, but an increasingly richly rewarding one. Not to be missed.

At the National Theatre’s Olivier Theatre, London SE1 until 3 January 2018: 020-7452 3000, www.nationaltheatre.org.uk 


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