The National Theatre’s 2017 production of Sondheim’s Follies was regarded as such a hit on every level that one had to wonder whether a revival could ever recapture in full what was achieved on that first occasion. In the event, however, this presentation stands very much as the equal of its predecessor, and in some ways even surpasses it.
Its success this time around can be attributed to three factors, and the first is Dominic Cooke’s production, which has just as much impact as it did before. It looks gorgeous as in Vicki Mortimer’s set Weismann’s crumbling, and soon to be demolished, theatre is represented by a wall that stands centre-stage on a revolving turntable, and a twisted wreck of dressing room mirrors and auditorium seats that lie in the background. In this way, the revolve element can make the most dynamic moment feel even more exuberant, but also add another layer to those points that involve just a handful of characters on a bare stage.
While the idea to have the characters duplicated, so that we see the younger versions of (for example) Sally, Phyllis, Ben and Buddy alongside the main protagonists, was Sondheim’s, Cooke has shown great inventiveness in utilising the basic premise so that much variation is introduced. For example, when Emily (Myra Sands) and Theodore (Billy Boyle) perform ‘Rain on the Roof’ in their old age the younger versions of themselves execute the number behind them as they would have done when they were at the height of their powers. When, however, Hattie (Claire Moore) sings ‘Broadway Baby’ her younger self simply sits quietly at the side gazing on. The choices made bring additional layers to the drama so that scenes that involve just two of the main protagonists can have all four of their younger selves gazing on, while ‘crossovers’ are introduced so that at one point the older Sally interacts directly with the younger Ben.
The second factor is the slickness of the execution. This production was smooth and accomplished from the start, but, notwithstanding the fact that some cast members are different, from first night two years ago to opening night now, the performers have had the chance to perfect every movement in choreographer Bill Deamer’s routines to a degree that could only ever be achieved by carrying them out for real on so many occasions. This shows most noticeably in ‘Who’s that Woman?’, which is multi-faceted anyway as it contrasts Stella (Dawn Hope) looking at herself with each member of the ensemble being ‘reflected’ over time. In this way, we see the younger and older performers dance their own sections before all create one long line that, when formed with the utmost precision on the revolving stage, looks absolutely stunning.
The third factor is the strength of the cast, which sees some who performed two years ago return stronger than ever, and new additions put their own slants on the characters they play. Peter Forbes and Janie Dee, who also appeared as Buddy and Phyllis in 2017, are magisterial in their ‘folly’ numbers. These are brilliant pieces to begin with as they use seemingly light-hearted vaudeville style songs to penetrate the fears, anxieties and dilemmas of each character, and Forbes and Dee execute their own to perfection.
Joanna Riding brings out Sally’s vulnerabilities and neuroses to the full while still maintaining a level of restraint that makes her character feel highly believable, though the climax to her own ‘folly’ reveals an expression of despair that could not feel any stronger. Alexander Hanson as Ben also provides a convincing, and deeply penetrating, study of a character who is so slick and in control on the surface, and yet who deep down hates himself so very much. Of the more minor characters, Tracie Bennett as Carlotta stands out for her priceless performance of ‘I’m Still Here’, as do Dame Felicity Lott and Alison Langer (Heidi and Young Heidi respectively) for their very moving rendition of ‘One More Kiss’. The orchestra, conducted by Nigel Lilley, is also on excellent form.
The final half an hour of Follies has to count as one of the very greatest in all of musical theatre, and interestingly, once we have come through it, the ending feels just a tad more upbeat than it did two years ago. It is easy to see it as representing the failure of four people, who decide simply to stick with what they have as they know they will never get any better. However, surely the lesson is that if someone can see straight through their partner and be so aware of their failings (as well as their own), and yet still ultimately decide they are going to be with them, then there is real love there. The ending could hardly be described as sugar coated, but the glimpses of warmth and humanity that we do catch only help to make this outstanding musical feel all the more moving.