The National Theatre’s revival of Sondheim’s Follies is a shining example of what musical theatre at its very best can offer, writes our arts contributor Jo Hemmings.
Follies is a musical that is much-loved by musical theatre aficionados, yet commonly unknown by the wider population.
There are perhaps a few reasons for this. Stephen Sondheim – who wrote the music and lyrics for Follies – is not the most accessible of composers. The complexity and depth of his lyrics do not always translate into the easily hummable melodies of certain other composers and often struggle to compete with the recognisable hits of the popular jukebox musical. It is the same for many of his other shows, recent interpretations of which have included Into The Woods (a 2014 Disney film) and Sweeney Todd (a 2007 film, with recent performances at the London Coliseum).
Another reason is that Follies has some inherent structural problems and very little story. It is set in New York in 1971 on the stage of the soon-to-be-demolished Weismann Theatre. The story concerns a musical revue named the ‘Weismann Follies’ (based on the real Ziegfeld Follies in New York in the 1920s and 30s), whose members meet for a reunion thirty years after their final performance. The four main characters in the show are two unhappily married couples, Buddy and Sally, and Ben and Phyllis. They meet again at the reunion and each one of them begins to question the choices they have made and their future.
I think there is another reason too. The very subject matter of Follies – a celebration of the opulence and glamour of the Broadway revue show between the wars – is unfashionable and the sexual glorification of the female showgirls can sit uncomfortably with our modern sentiments. And as is often the case with shows about shows, it risks appearing self-absorbed and alienating those outside the show business.
So it is a mark of how truly great this production at the National Theatre is that it manages to transcend such matters and deliver a shining example of what musical theatre as an art form, at its very best, can offer.
This production of Follies, directed by Dominic Cooke, is a revival of the highly acclaimed 2017 production at the National Theatre. Many of the cast members are the same, with Janie Dee and Peter Forbes reprising their roles as Phyllis and Buddy respectively. Joanna Riding replaces the much-applauded Imelda Staunton as Sally and Alexander Hanson takes over from Philip Quast as Ben. I did not see the 2017 production to compare, but no one watching this show would for a moment think they were watching anything other than the very best cast. Vicki Mortimer’s designs were inspired: a large brick wall branded with the name ‘Follies’ in bright lights formed the centre-piece and the rubble of old theatre chairs and debris in the back corner hinted throughout at the key themes of destruction and nostalgia. The circular rotating stage also worked well at assisting the momentum of the characters, thankfully never becoming too distracting.
Sondheim is the Shakespeare of musical theatre and Follies is a work from the height of his powers…his skill in encapsulating changing emotions in the space of a single song is undeniable.
A striking feature of the show is the ‘doubling’ of the older characters with different actors playing their younger selves. This generally works well. So when Ben and Sally meet again after many years at the reunion party, we see their younger selves just behind them having an argument – a successful way of bringing out the context of the scene and adding depth to the characters. Such doubling is also used effectively in the great tap-dancing show number ‘Who’s That Woman?’, in which all of the older showgirls and their younger selves finish by dancing together in a long line across the stage (choreography by Bill Deamer). It was a particularly memorable number, performed with energy and style.
Sondheim is the Shakespeare of musical theatre and Follies is a work from the height of his powers. As such, the musical is rich and rewards deep engagement. The lack of story allows Follies to take the form of the revue shows it celebrates. And while there may not be an overall plot arc, there are most definitely character arcs, culminating in each of the main four actors performing their own ‘folly’ in a straight run at the end, making for an inspired conclusion.
Sally – as played here by Joanna Riding – is the most striking. Starting off as a nervous, giggling, silly older woman confronting her ex-lover Ben, who she is still in love with, at the reunion party after many years, she ends by belting out her showstopper ‘Losing My Mind’, full of power and emotion and one of the highlights of the show. When Joanna Riding ripped off her wig at the end of her performance, utterly exposing herself emotionally at the same time, the feeling among the audience was palpable. Did you love me, or were you just being kind – or am I losing my mind?
Janie Dee as Phyllis holds her own moment in a vitriolic performance of ‘Could I Leave You?’, a cleverly constructed song by Sondheim exploring why Phyllis could leave her husband Ben, but why she’s not going to. At one point she asks her husband whether he could leave her and decides he could ‘leave her the house, leave her the flat….’. Such moments are only the more obvious examples of Sondheim’s twists of humour. Phyllis’s folly is ‘The Story of Lucy and Jessie’, performed admirably, including by the ensemble. This is a woman who has decided to stay with her husband but whose life is certainly not over yet.
Then there is the character of Ben, played by Alexander Hanson. Beginning confident and cocky, swigging drinks at the party as he appears to reminisce positively about his younger days (‘Waiting for the Girls’), he rejects Sally once again and ends by breaking down in the remarkable sequence that is ‘Live, Laugh, Love’. Alexander Hanson’s performance here was so convincing that for a single short moment of fear I actually believed his request for his performance to stop was genuine.
Buddy is, in many ways, the most easily neglected of the main quartet – but that is kind of the point. Peter Forbes’s spot-on performance of ‘Buddy’s Blues’ – about his unsatisfactory background adventures with other girls – is what introduces the final four ‘follies’ of the main characters, its flippant and amusing tone almost hiding that this character is every bit as unhappy as the other three.
Another joy of this production was provided by the talented ensemble, many of whom get their own special revue-style number over the course of the show. My favourite was the brilliant ‘Broadway Baby’. Claire Moore as Hattie begins as a lonely, dowdy figure sitting and reflecting with some bitterness on the difficulties of a young girl looking for work on Broadway and finishes exalting in the joy of performance surrounded by the ensemble cast on stage. This transformation is marked inspiringly – and performed brilliantly – by the elevation of a single word: ‘show’. Sondheim’s skill in encapsulating changing emotions in the space of a single song is undeniable.
This National Theatre production of Follies, then, brings out the very best that Sondheim’s musical has to offer. It pulls you relentlessly into the lives of the characters, refusing to let go for a whole two hours and fifteen minutes (performed here in its entirety, without an interval, as in the original production – a sound artistic choice).
Follies is not a flawless musical. But this production at the National Theatre shows it can truly be a great one.
Stephen Sondheim’s Follies is on at the National Theatre until Saturday 11th May. For tickets and more information on the National Theatre’s production of Follies, click here. To find out about the National Theatre’s free 16-25 entry pass, which entitles you to purchase tickets for £7.50, click here.