Olivier, National Theatre, London – until 3 January 2018
BROADWAY BABIES IN A BITTER LOVELAND… Last time the Olivier stage was this populous was for Amadeus, with the entire Southbank Sinfonia clambering, flowing and sliding around the stage, shaping and re-forming to play celestial Mozart harmonies on the move.
This time it is full of feathers and fans, satin and sequins and spectacular hoofing (choreography by Bill Deamer, brilliant both in precision and character moments – Tracie Bennett, take a faux-hobbling bow). The music is stunningly directed by Nigel Lilley, and a highly decorative ensemble surrounds four principals and standout cameos. It’s a showbiz dream and nightmare performed, under Dominic Cooke’s bold direction, without an interval in two hours 15 minutes flat.
Not a harsh word can be uttered about any of the big Sondheim numbers, or against the stellar cast – especially the women. Imelda Staunton, Janie Dee, Tracie Bennett, Josephine Barstow – be still my beating heart! Nor can you not fall heavily for Di Botcher doing Broadway Baby in an Angela Merkel pant-suit, or fail to nod approval at the inclusion of a high-kicking Strallen (Zizi this time, gotta have one at least: and her reaction acting as a younger Phyllis is outstanding). And never regret seeing Peter Forbes as the maritally disappointed Buddy, acing both his numbers: a heartbreaking The Right Girl and a final hypervaudeville patter-pastiche complete with a Benny Hill chase.
Yet it’s a curious beast, this show. To this devoted Sondheimista who had never seen it performed but wept at the attrition of lives in Merrily We Roll Along, gasped at Assassins and Sweeney Todd and thrice worshipped Gypsy with Imelda Staunton, it struck a curiously chill, almost bland note. Which is not the fault of the conception – an artful game of duality between past and present, naturalism and pastiche- nor of the production, because any chance of real transmission of feeling is taken seriously: notably by an endearing Staunton and a waspish Dee.
Maybe it just feels chilly because that is its theme: the ruins and regrets of mid-life, the attrition of age, the way that feather-helmeted showbiz glamour fades to middle age, a metaphor for the universal loss of youth’s sheen and ambition. And there are nice swipes of disgust at the roles life throws at women getting older: “You’re a wide-eyed vamp, then someone’s mother, then you’re camp..” sings the ineffably funny Tracie Bennett as Carlotta, briefly stealing the show with “I’m still here”.
It’s not a complicated idea. Under a nicely half-demolished, backstage-cluttered set of the Weinstock Follies (“Celebrating the American Girl”) a final reunion of the old “girls” sees a meeting of two old flatmates: Staunton’s effervescent awkward Sally and Dee’s cool, queenly Phyllis. Their respective husbands, successful Ben (Philip Quast, terrific) and salesman Buddy have come reluctantly. They know it’ll be trouble, and it is, as the foursome’s middle-aged interactions interlace with their young selves, wandering through memory, dancing the old dance of emotional entanglement which saw Sally and Ben marrying the wrong ones. Mature dishonesties and delusions melt as the evening gets drunker (a bold and wise stroke from Cooke to run it without an interval: we’re at that party). It culminates in a spectacular eightsome-riot melting into four great “Loveland” set-pieces, mocking vaudeville parodies of real and tearing emotions.
It is all done brilliantly, as well as it could be, and yet does not quite move the heart. Even – no, especially – in the redemptive moments at the end. So a grand entertaining evening, and some of the showiest showbiz in town. But the eyes stay dry.
box office box office 020 7452 3333 http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk to 3 Jan
On screens nationwide 16 nov http://ntlive.nationaltheatre.org.uk