Olivier, National Theatre, London – until 3 January 2018
Broadcast to cinemas via NT Live on 16 November 2017
Musicals are not really my area of expertise, so a trip to see Dominic Cooke’s production of Follies was a chance to get up to speed. Also, I have never seen any Sondheim, and the chance does not seem to come round very often.
As soon as the lights goes down in the Oliver it becomes clear why this is the first full London production of Follies in thirty years: it is an absolute extravaganza. Vicki Mortimer’s revolving sets are vast – the façade and rear of the soon-to-be demolished Weismann Theatre, a New York fire escape cascading down its back wall, and a battered auditorium strewn with broken up seating. And the cast is even bigger, with almost every character played twice.
As the aging former Weismann’s girls gather for a final reunion, thirty years after the show closed, their younger selves appear simultaneously on stage, in breath-taking chorus girl costumes meticulously designed to match the era, from 1918 to 1941. No expense is spared, and really there is no room to make savings on a show like this which demands to be done properly.
Of course, Follies is much more than a spectacle. It is simultaneously a nostalgic tribute to the showgirl era and, a show written to consign it to history. Like all reunions, the demolition party forces characters to face up to the lives they have made. Sondheim’s writing is sharp and without sentiment. The beauty and glamour of the onstage world is fully acknowledged, but quickly stripped of any pretension to reality. The central characters – Imelda Staunton and Peter Forbes, Janie Dee and Philip Quast play the quartet who met at the Follies and have each committed their own folly as they chose the wrong partners, or think they did.
There are no happy endings, but an entirely believable, compromised denouement. A number of remarkable songs track the emotional unravelling, in particular Dee’s angry, bitter ‘Could I Leave You?’, and Staunton’s upsetting ‘Losing My Mind’, together the antithesis of comfort theatre.
However, the strength of Follies is the breadth of Sondheim’s world. Some of the most memorable numbers belong to characters outside these four. In particular, Di Botcher’s ‘Broadway Baby’, recalling her ingénue days, is a fine song stunningly performed. Even more so, Tracie Bennett’s defiant ‘I’m Still Here’, a ‘Je Ne Regret Rien’ for the American musical, seems to break free altogether from the context of the show. Follies is sophisticated, complex and rewarding as theatre, not least when the parallel timelines slip and characters mingle and dance with their younger selves. It is hard to imagine this show being done better. It did make me think about how rarely I see shows where high production values are crucial to the result. I enjoyed the polish, but regretted the lack of ambiguity that came with it. The entertainment is presented to the audience as something complete, to sit back and enjoy. There seemed to be limited space for the imaginative engagement I realise I am used to experiencing, as part of more stripped-back theatre. However, there’s no doubt this is a big hit for the National – big enough, with any luck, to recoup the serious cost of staging it.