Follies – Review – The National Theatre Live, Junction Goole
By Rachael Popow, November 2017
Although it contains some of composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim’s best-loved and most frequently performed songs – one of them, ‘Rain On The Roof’, even gets an inspired airing in Paddington 2 – the musical Follies is rarely revived.
The current National Theatre production is the first major London staging since its West End debut in 1987, which was one reason to be very excited about the live screening at a packed Goole Junction.
There are others, such as the near ecstatic reviews the show has received and the fact that it stars Sondheim-specialist Imelda Staunton, who won Olivier Awards for her performances in Into The Woods, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street and Gypsy. Luckily, it more than lives up to expectations.
“Exploiting his power”
For anyone going in without preconceptions, Follies is set in a crumbling New York theatre in 1971. In its heyday, the building was the home of the Weismann Follies, but now it’s about to be demolished to make way for an office block.
To mark the occasion, impresario Dimitri Weismann (Gary Raymond, in a small but topical role that suggests his character wasn’t averse to exploiting his power over aspiring young starlets) has invited the ex-showgirls to a reunion so they can ‘have a few drinks, sing a few songs and lie about ourselves.’
As the middle aged-to-elderly performers mingle and take to the stage to recreate their acts, the ghosts of the past are all around them in the form of their younger selves, decked out in their old costumes.
Among the attendees are Sally (Staunton), who settled for travelling salesman Buddy (Peter Forbes) but was really in love with his friend Ben (Philip Quash), now a rich and famous politician who is unhappily married to Sally’s jaded ex-roommate Phyllis (Janie Dee). When the two couples meet up again, it reopens old wounds and brings their current simmering resentments to boiling point.
Staunton is wonderful as nervy, desperate Sally – her rendition of ‘Losing My Mind’ makes it clear that we should take this gorgeous torch song literally. In fact the only reason she should wait before clearing a space in her trophy cabinet for another award is that it’s hard to pick out just one standout from the great ensemble.
Dee is also terrific as sarcastic Phyllis, and there are scene-stealing turns from the other Weismann ‘girls’, including Tracie Bennett as film star Carlotta, who delivers the showbiz survivors’ anthem ‘I’m Still Here’, and Di Botcher, who belts out a showstopping ‘Broadway Baby’.
The combination of the older performers and their youthful alter egos is dazzling in the tap number ‘Who’s That Woman?’, and poignant in ‘One Last Kiss’, which finds 77-year-old soprano Josephine Barstow duetting with Alison Langer as her younger self.
Meanwhile, the set, all crumbling brickwork and a rickety fire escape in lieu of what was presumably once a sweeping, Busby Berkeley staircase, just adds to the haunting atmosphere.
No wonder the Junction audience applauded when the screening was over. Maybe the success of the National Theatre’s Follies will inspire other companies to revive the musical more regularly, but we’ll probably be in for another long wait before we see a production this good.
images: Johan Persson