Olivier, National Theatre, London
Eighteen months on and with a couple of well-placed casting changes Stephen Sondheim’s Follies returns to the National Theatre with the excellence of this devastating musical a breath of fresh air amidst a slew of disappointing recent openings in the capital. What sets Follies apart from so many other current shows is the meticulous detail that Sondheim weaves into his lyrics and melodies. There is an almost Shakespearean genius to the man, such is his ability to pare the essence of love, lovelessness and the human condition down to the barest, bleakest of bones.
Of Follies’ two leading ladies Janie Dee reprises Phyllis, as Joanna Riding takes over as Sally for this revival. Dee has had time to both sharpen Phyllis’ talons and harden her carapace, her every nuance carefully honed by Cooke’s perceptive direction. Dee’s delivery of Sondheim’s words wield a merciless scalpel into the failures of husband Ben. Phyllis’ big solo ‘Could I Leave You?’ proving almost bloody in its brutal dissection of her marriage. Dee savours the wit that Sondheim has bestowed upon her character. Acting through song does not get better than this.
Follies was already a five star show back in 2017. With Riding onboard however and with the elegant fragility that she brings to Sally, a level of credible characterisation that was missing on this production’s first outing, the whole piece is lifted to a higher plane. Sally is one of the toughest gigs in the canon, a faded beauty decayed into a desperate housewife, glamorously bewigged and yet ultimately a woman who on the inside, is crumbing as much as the derelict theatre around her.
Serving up pathos without a hint of maudlin sentimentality Riding’s heartbreaking rendition of ‘In Buddy’s Eyes’ is a lament to a love that has long since dwindled – while the mental devastation of ‘Losing My Mind’ scorches in its revelation of her pain. And as she rips the wig from her head during that song’s closing bars, we gasp at the brute ugliness of her depression.
Peter Forbes’ Buddy Plummer has grown too. There is a sleazy mania to his performance that is as abhorrent as it is compelling, especially in his Willy Loman-esque take on ‘The Right Girl’. Alexander Hanson’s Ben offers up a brief glance into the rise and, more pronouncedly, the fall of an oleaginous statesman. Hanson performs well, but there is a tad more bedding into the role that is needed to fully convince.
The show’s supporting roles are all individual treats. Tracie Bennett, ‘still here’ from 2017 as Carlotta, remains perhaps the most diminutive of powerhouse voices to be found in the West End. Oozing classy, sassy cynicism Bennett comes close to stopping the show. She is matched though by her colleagues. Claire Moore is every inch, the most believable Broadway Baby; Felicity Lott and Alison Langer enchant with One More Kiss; Dawn Hope leads the most phenomenal tap line (and credit here to Bill Deamer’s immaculately conceived and drilled choreography throughout) in Who’s That Woman – and a further nod to Bennett who, in a display of sheer bloody stamina segues seamlessly from that number into the demands of I’m Still Here.
Dawn Hope leads the lineThe ghost quartet of the leading roles are marvellous with the ever-excellent Gemma Sutton, together with Christine Tucker, Ian McIntosh and Harry Hepple all offering the necessary passion, scorn and incredulity to make their ghost roles take flight.
It is not just Follies’ writing, but also the National’s lavish production values that define this show as a gem. Vicki Mortimer’s designs deftly blend the decay of the Weismann Theatre into the glamour of the ghosted numbers, with the subtle magnificence of the Olivier’s drum revolve taking the show through both the battered Broadway building as well as the decades, almost imperceptibly. Nigel Lilley’s 20-piece orchestra is a soaring delight throughout.
A musical can be judged on narrative, music, song and dance, with Follies scoring top marks across the board. This revival offers an unmissable glimpse into the heaven and hell of humanity.
Runs until 11th MayPhoto credit: Johan Persson