National Theatre, London – until 3 January 2018
We should never be afraid to attack sacred cows. And when sacred cows are also cash cows, we should never be afraid to kick them in their milky udders and demand to know how our National Theatre made such a poor fist of as rock-solid a certainty as Follies.
Maybe despite running a painful 2 hours 20 without an interval, Dominic Cooke’s production is actually a game of two halves – it highlights every note of the music (good) but also every flaw in the book (terrible).
The plot, for normal people who don’t give a stuff about Sondheim and whose ranks I’m considering joining after this experience – at least I’d like some of the print critics to take their tongues out of his backside – is that thirty years after its heyday, in 1971 a New York theatre is closing and invites its former showgirls to a valedictory celebration. At their centre is a foursome based on friends Sally (Imelda Staunton) and Phyllis (Janie Dee) one of whom fancied the other’s husband and has carried a dim torch for him since. He doesn’t return her affections and she goes slightly insane.
Now, while she gives excellent desperate housewife and sings with her usual, energetic precision, nobody will convince me that Staunton was ever a ‘showgirl’ – she’s nine inches too short for the Folies Bergère and I’m not sure they made many allowances in New York either.
The biggest flaw in James Goldman’s book is that only the four principals have real conversations so no one else is given a chance to tell their back story. This means no context for any of the successive veteran troupers rolled out in turn to deliver their big number, like Tracie Bennett’s ‘I’m Still Here’ which stands out, and ‘Broadway Baby’ and ‘Ah, Paree!’ which seriously don’t.
This reminded me that by his own admission in Finishing The Hat Sondheim deliberately pastiched the music of Cole Porter, who never wrote for the Follies producers: and that’s the sort of lazy indulgence I’d expect from a writer with a much lesser reputation.
Vicky Mortimer’s crumbling set, and Paule Constable’s crepuscular lighting certainly set the tone of decay, and there’s a good and ghostly sense to the opening, but unfortunately nothing gets brighter and the relentless revolving can make you a tad nauseous.
If you’re really going to stage an homage to the great Ziegfeld and the showgirl era, you need an illuminated staircase, not a fire escape that looks rescued from a provincial tour of West Side Story, and a “have you had an accident that wasn’t your fault?” advertisement waiting to happen.
Although some of the sound is muffled until the huge rotating walls atop the revolve are moved, the band are great, and the Jonathan Tunick orchestrations remarkably well served. Janie Dee is delightful, relishing Phyllis’s cocktail-fuelled sarcasm and a gloriously pointed ‘Could I Leave You’. As her feckless husband Ben, Philip Qast is in fine voice, but Peter Forbes just underlines how haplessly written is the role of Buddy, Sally’s philandering husband.
The four performers who play the lead characters as their younger selves are all great: Fred Haig, Alex Young, Adam Rhys-Charles and Zizi Strallen.
Remember the Sondheim Prom at the Albert Hall? Good, wasn’t it? Maybe the way forward is concerts.