Stephen Sondheim and James Goldman’s masterpiece Follies opened on Broadway in 1971. Directed by Broadway legends Harold Prince and Michael Bennett, the production was a financial failure. In fact, the musical didn’t see wide-spread success until its original London run in 1987, sixteen years after it’s Broadway debut. Since then, the show has been performed in concert numerous times, been revived on Broadway in 2001, followed by a London revival in 2002 and another Broadway revival in 2011 resulting in the show becoming one of the most loved musicals in Sondheim’s prolific catalogue. A new production has been mounted at The National Theatre giving London the chance to hear Broadway show-stoppers “Broadway Baby”, “I’m Still Here”, “Could I Leave You?” and “Losing My Mind” from the much-loved score sung by a star- studded cast.
Follies follows a reunion of past performers of the “Weismann’s Follies” in the crumbling Weismann Theatre just before the theatre is demolished. Stars on the by-gone Follies reunite “to glamorise the old days, to sing a few songs and to lie about ourselves a little.” The former showgirls revive their Weisman Follies numbers, shadowed by ghosts of their former selves helping them regain their youth and glory days. Interwoven through the nostalgic Follies songs is the story of two couples, Buddy and Sally Durant Plummer and Ben and Phyllis Rogers Stone. Both Sally and Phyllis were showgirls in the Follies and are both extremely unhappy in their marriages. Buddy is a travelling salesman and is having an affair with a girl on the road while Sally is very much in love with Ben who is so self-absorbed, his wife Phyllis feels emotionally abandoned.
While The National Theatre’s production has wonderfully designed sets by Vicki Mortimer which create a beautiful spectacle at every moment, the real credit of this production lies in Dominic Cooke direction and each performer’s creation of character and very raw and truthful performances. As Sally Durrant Plummer, Imelda Stuanton begins the show bubbly and excited to be re-visiting her performing glory days. As the show progresses we learn just how unhappily married she is and see her unravel to a heart-breaking performance of “Losing My Mind” as her Sally seems to do just that. Staunton’s performance is captivating, her command of the stage sees the audience being unable to take their eyes from her. Peter Forbes as Sally’s adulterous husband Buddy Plummer, is perfectly tragic as we learn of Buddy’s Blues; having an affair with a woman on the road while being absolutely in love with Sally who’s unable to love him in return. Phillip Quast’s velvety singing voice suits his performance as Ben Stone. Stone begins confident and seemingly successful however through the show discovers how much he’s wasted his life. Quast’s raw performance is able to achieve this range of emotion with expert skill, including a moment where he forgets the words to a song and some of the audience thought he was actually apologising to the audience for real. As Phyllis Rogers Stone, Janie Dee shines. Her magazine worthy living room a front for her emotional abandonment from husband Ben, accumulating to a desperate “Could I Leave You?” Dee’s skill at holding an audience in the palm of her hand is evident in her performance and she relishes a chance to display her dance talent in an almost bitter performance of “The Story of Lucy and Jessie”.
Among the many other noteworthy performances are Tracie Bennett as Carlotta and her “I’m Still Here”. Bennett’s rendition goes from performing the song in conversation to a visiting film crew, to conversing with the audience to breaking down, exhausted with her defiant survivalist attitude. A real show-stopper and highlight of the evening. Di Botcher’s performance of Hattie’s “Broadway Baby” is a wonderful brassy trouser suited celebration and Joesphine Barstow’s beautiful soprano voice as Heidi in “One Kiss More” is extremely welcomed in this ballad full of regret and longing.
Dominic Cooke’s detailed and clever direction sees each Weismann Follie’s girl and boy shadowed by the younger version of their former selves. Intricately doubling the actions and movements of each character perfectly, this creates a ghostly look and feel to Follies. The Olivier Theatre at The National Theatre is a large space to fill, however as an audience member I never felt confused about who the younger actors were portraying, even with the stage filled to the brim. This is solely down to Cooke’s direction and something I felt should be noted as I found this achievement admirable in a show such as Follies.
While Follies itself has always been an imperfect show, The National Theatre’s production can only be described as “masterful”. Score, book, design, performances and direction accumulate to a masterful production that is required viewing by anyone who has ever loved theatre. Follies is a nostalgic love letter to the theatre, performers and musicals of yesteryear. Broadway Babies will also have the chance to relive this beautiful production when Follies is broadcast by NT Live in cinemas across the UK and internationally on Thursday 16th November.
Reviewed by Stuart James