A deliberately rundown-looking set leaves little to the audience’s imagination in Follies, which, in a nutshell, is about a bunch of performers, who used to act in an annual interwar musical revue, attending a reunion in 1971. It wouldn’t happen today – the venue, in such a state of disrepair, would fail a risk assessment. The National Theatre has put on a lavish production: to quote Cabaret, “even the orchestra is beautiful”, producing the sort of majestic and beautiful symphonic sound (here, led by Nigel Lilley) rarely heard in live theatre these days. That, I’d say, is reason enough to see this show.
The attention to detail within this large cast is a sight to behold. Occasionally, particularly during the larger ensemble numbers, the staging comes close to being overwhelming, as there is so much going on at the same time. The lighting (Paule Constable) helps to focus attention predominantly where it ought to be focused, though cleverly leaves just enough visibility to see what is happening on the stage as a whole. Follies is to be broadcast by National Theatre Live on Thursday 16 November 2017: whether the cameras will be able to capture sufficiently what it is like to see it in the NT’s Olivier auditorium remains to be seen.
It’s some moments into the musical before anyone actually sings anything, but once Roscoe (Bruce Graham) launches into ‘Beautiful Girls’, the musical numbers just keep on coming, to the point where from time to time it felt as though this were a song cycle rather than a musical theatre production. in some respects, the storyline is not much to write home about: do audiences really need a show to tell them that young love does not necessarily develop into a perennially joyful and lifelong relationship?
That, mind you, is not the only thing to be taken away from Follies, which has a mixture of gentle and acid-tongued moments of humour, and some truly wonderful songs, though I concede it’s not going to win over anyone not already a fan of musical theatre. By Stephen Sondheim’s standards, the songs are, overall, not as wordy and rapidly paced as some of his other material. That said, the penultimate number, ‘The Story of Lucy and Jessie’, is a bit of a tongue-twister, though Phyllis Rogers Stone (Janie Dee) makes it come across as effortless.
The songs retain the sort of depth and wit found elsewhere in the Sondheim repertoire. For instance, ‘I’m Still Here’, sung by Carlotta Campion (Tracie Bennett, retaining a borderline bass vocal that served her well in the lead role in the 2016 West End production of Mrs Henderson Presents), has so many references to the era in which Dimitri Weismann (Gary Raymond) held his Follies shows that it is difficult to keep up with them all.
Some fancy footwork, courtesy of Bill Deamer’s choreography, permeates through the evening’s proceedings. Adherence to Sondheim’s preference for the show to run without an interval makes little, if any, difference to the show’s intensity. But this production nonetheless felt much shorter than its 2 hours 18 minutes running time.
Sometimes when there’s a cast of this magnitude and talent, having so many top performers who have a long history of playing principal roles collectively sound a tad jarring when singing in harmony. Not here. The solo numbers are as splendid as the group ones. Sally Durant Plummer (Imelda Staunton) goes through a broad range of human emotions, demonstrated in the spoken dialogue as well as two of the songs, ‘In Buddy’s Eyes’ and then the famous ‘Losing My Mind’, respectively almost deliriously happy and almost unequivocally devastating. Philip Quast as Benjamin Stone is consummately convincing in ‘Live, Laugh, Love’. I could have listened to Quast and Staunton sing together all night. I had to settle for just the one number, ‘Too Many Mornings’.
Probably the standout moment for me, however, was ‘One More Kiss’, sung so poignantly and sublimely by Dame Josephine Barstow’s Heidi Schiller and Alison Langer’s Young Heidi. All things considered, this is an impressive production, tremendous, thrilling and truly terrific.
Review by Chris Omaweng
New York, 1971. There’s a party on the stage of the Weismann Theatre. Tomorrow the iconic building will be demolished. Thirty years after their final performance, the Follies girls gather to have a few drinks, sing a few songs and lie about themselves.
Including such classic songs as Broadway Baby, I’m Still Here and Losing My Mind, Stephen Sondheim’s legendary musical is staged for the first time at the National Theatre.
The cast includes Julie Armstrong, Norma Atallah, Josephine Barstow, Jeremy Batt, Tracie Bennett, Di Botcher, Billy Boyle, Janie Dee, Anouska Eaton, Liz Ewing, Geraldine Fitzgerald, Peter Forbes, Emily Goodenough, Bruce Graham, Adrian Grove, Fred Haig, Aimee Hodnett , Dawn Hope, Liz Izen, Alison Langer, Emily Langham, Sarah-Marie Maxwell, Ian McLarnon, Leisha Mollyneaux, Gemma Page, Kate Parr, Philip Quast, Edwin Ray, Gary Raymond, Adam Rhys-Charles, Jordan Shaw, Imelda Staunton, Zizi Strallen, Barnaby Thompson, Christine Tucker, Michael Vinsen and Alex Young.
Follies will be broadcast by NT Live to cinemas in the UK and internationally on Thursday 16th November.
Director – Dominic Cooke
Designer – Vicki Mortimer
Choreographer – Bill Deamer
Music Supervisor – Nicholas Skilbeck
Orchestrations – Jonathan Tunick
Music Director – Nigel Lilley
Lighting Designer – Paule Constable
Sound Designer – Paul Groothuis
book by James Goldman
music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Now playing – best availability from 6 Nov
Running Time: Approx. 2 hours 10 mins no interval