Wednesday, 20 December 2017

But I've done that already, or didn't you know, love?

"It’s jaw-droppingly great." - Paul Taylor, The Independent

"This isn’t just triumphant, it’s transcendent." - Tim Bano, The Stage

"Unmissable, really." - Dominic Cavendish, The Telegraph

Hils (who masterminded the trip), History Boy, Madam Arcati and I ventured [for the very first time, incidentally] to the concrete bunker that is The Olivier at the National Theatre [an unforgiving maze of levels, stairs and walkways that could confuse even the most intrepid Victorian explorer] on Monday for the hugely-anticipated new production of Stephen Sondheim's glitziest musical, Follies. In the expert directorial hands of the NT's Associate Dominic Cooke - who has eschewed more modern revisions of the show in favour of its original version - it was probably the most overwhelming thing we've seen all year!

Follies, with its central abiding theme of a reunion of now-elderly former showgirls, has assumed somewhat of a reputation over the years as a "vehicle" for real-life faded beauties to partake in the line-up and shimmy their way back into the limelight for perhaps a last encore. Indeed, the roster of "chorines" who have appeared in the show since its inception in 1971 is impressive, and includes such luminaries as Yvonne De Carlo, Barbara Cook, Carol Burnett, Elaine Stritch, Bernadette Peters, Hildegarde, Lee Remick, Patty Duke, Virginia Mayo, Ann Miller, Dame Diana Rigg, Polly Bergen, Vikki Carr, Donna McKechnie, Shani Wallis, Eartha Kitt, Maxene Andrews, Dolores Gray, Kaye Ballard, Stella Stevens, Juliet Prowse, Dorothy Lamour, Jo Anne Worley, Millicent Martin, Marni Nixon, Régine, Elaine Paige, Adele Anderson and even Yma Sumac.

Indeed, we went to see a glittering one-off "in concert" production at the Royal Albert Hall (by Strictly Come Dancing's Craig Revell-Horwood) that featured a cast of mega-camp proportions, with Stephanie Powers, Anita Dobson, Betty Buckley, Lorna Luft, Anita Harris, Ruthie Henshall and Christine Baranski back in 2015.

This full-fledged, two-and-a-quarter-hours-without-an-interval version was something more than all that, however. The fabled tale of the gathering of "Mr Weissman's Follies" girls amongst the ruins of the about-to-be-demolished theatre in which they all had their finest hours is, of course, an excuse for all of them to get their glad-rags out and perform their own solo pieces for the last time - but here, the slow-moving, monochrome "ghosts" of their former selves in full feathered and sequinned (and magnificent) regalia were not so much the foil for the dance routines, but, quite scarily, the spectres of a collective death: of their dreams, their ambitions, and the lost hopes of their youth.

The archetypal "mutton dressed as lamb" Solange LaFitte (Geraldine Fitzgerald) flirted and winked through her naughty memories in Ah, Paris!, yet her only accompanying dancers were (sexy) ghosts. Frail old Emily and Theodore Whitman (Norma Attallah and Billy Boyle) soft-shoe shuffled through what was, in their day, a top-class dance number Rain On The Roof, but among the rubble theirs was a poignant attempt at joy. And, with the show-stopper to beat all show-stoppers, Carlotta Campion (an utterly convincing and superb Tracie Bennett) belted out - to a long-dead audience on an empty stage - her defiant I'm Still Here; as her own "ghost" sat, forlorn, on a demolished section of wall. Even the opening parade of Those Beautiful Girls was done down a rusty fire escape, the sweeping staircase of old having been already presumably bulldozed... Most chilling of all - and the point at which even a hard-bitten bitch such as I, dear reader, cried - was when the utterly sublime Heidi Schiller (Josephine Barstow) performed her mournful operatic duet with her glamorous, young, former self (Alison Langer) on One More Kiss. We can see ourselves in these chorus girls, after all - and recall our own "glamorous and desirable moments". Long gone.

Thankfully, a little light relief was at hand courtesy of the brassy Hattie Walker (Di Botcher) - now larger than life and hardly a hoofer - who bucked the trend with her obviously tongue-in-cheek Broadway Baby, and the superbly-choreographed Who's That Woman, in which Stella Deems (Dawn Hope) led the assembled girls in a riotous ensemble routine that ended with present-day and past versions linking arms with themselves in full chorus-line fashion, and raised the roof.

Throughout the mêlée of set-pieces, of course, is woven the main story: the embittered and entangled lives and relationships of Sally Durant (Imelda Staunton), Buddy Plummer (Peter Forbes), Phyllis Rogers (Janie Dee) and Benjamin Stone (Philip Quast). Ostensibly secure, comfortably-off and settled, it soon becomes evident that they are anything but...

With the tableau of the quartet's younger selves interjecting across, around and through the stilted conversations, Ben set the scene with his own song of regret The Road You Didn't Take, and the brittle and neurotic Sally maintained a pretence that she and Buddy are happy and secure (In Buddy's Eyes). When the two started dancing together, these lies came to the surface as it became evident that the pair had never, even after three decades, got over the fact that young Ben left young Sally and married young Phyllis instead. Their tearful and beautifully sung duet Too Many Mornings encapsulated this longed-for passion.

But it was all very, very long ago; and despite Sally's obsessive belief that the long-dead relationship might be rekindled, no-one - not the errant Buddy (grasping at affairs as his almost-escape-route from the desperation of his marriage, as outlined in the barn-storming The Right Girl), nor the troubled Ben himself - wanted to "rock the boat" that much. Phyllis came closest. Beautifully bored, elegantly unsatisfied, she ripped the façade behind which Ben hides himself to shreds with her utterly magnificent Could I Leave You?. We were completely bowled over by Janie Dee's performance.

As the cries of anguish rang out over this bitter reunion bash, so the irony of the "young 'uns" number You're Gonna Love Tomorrow sent even more shivers down the spine than usual - as the foursome (Fred Haig as Buddy, Alex Young as Sally, Adam Rhys-Charles as Ben and the superb Zizi Strallen as Phyllis) flirted and cavorted with hardly a care in the world, on their way to wedded (ahem) bliss.

Then the curtains rose on the dream-like Loveland set, and each of the main leads was introduced by a chorus girl to perform their own final "Folly" (variety show style). Buddy's The God-Why-Don't-You-Love-Me Blues, a pastiche in the chirpy style of Al Jolson or Jimmy Durante, exposed his inability to decide between the disastrous Sally and his long-distance and naive mistress Margie. He was completely upstaged, however, when Phyllis and her young self va-va-voomed their way through The Story of Lucy and Jessie.

Of course, neither character's routine could ever compare with the show's most climactic tour-de-force number Losing My Mind - and in the hands (and with the tonsils) of Miss Staunton, "Sally's Folly" was a bitter, desperate, angry, bewildered, gut-wrenching cry for help from a character who was so far removed from reality that she can no longer function. Not so much a show-tune as a cataclysm...

Even her performance couldn't reach the polished heights of Mr Quast and his awe-inspiring voice (throughout the show). He is one of the very best in the business. His portrayal of "Ben's Folly" was on another level altogether however, as his "rictus grin" as the leading man in the song-and-dance number Live, Laugh, Love crumbled away in a sea of broken, lonely sobs that had me completely frozen in my seat. Utter genius.

Unlike previous adaptations of the book by James Goldman, this Follies has no happy, neat nor tidy ending. Phyllis, of course, gets the final line. As she picks Ben up to take him home he says: You're quite something, aren't you?" - to which she replies with "Bet your ass!"

I am overjoyed we got to see this Sondheim masterpiece before its final curtain on 3rd January. I have rarely felt so exhausted and thrilled by a production. It was an incomparably great experience!

Follies at the NT

More Follies.


  1. An amazingly fab production and a great review.

    1. Thank you, sweetie. Transcendent, indeed!


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