Review – Follies, National Theatre

Friday 1 September 2017

Earlier in the year we were invited to join the Follies production syndicate.

“Your support is crucial to ensure the play is successfully brought to the stage. We would love you to make this happen. As a thank you we will keep you up to date with the production as it progresses

How inordinately generous of them. If we were to fumble around in our pockets we’d expect a meet and greet with Stephen Sondheim or a glass of fizz with Imelda Staunton to say the least.

Follies is notoriously costly to stage; the original productions failed to make their money back. But then the National Theatre is a registered charity. They get significant funding. Needless to say we ignored their outstretched Oliver Twisty arms. Phil’s spent enough on it over the years anyway. He’s lost count of the concert versions he’s seen not to mention an early attack of Shentonitis which saw him visit the 1987 original London production 5 times. And yes, as he’s not fully over the infliction, he’s booked to see this one again in November. Phil’s own way of tossing a bit in their begging bowl.

For those unacquainted with kneeling at the Sondheim altar it concerns showgirls from Weismann’s Follies (based on Ziegfeld’s) who attend a reunion held in the crumbling, soon-to-be-demolished old theatre where they once sashayed their sequins. You can tell it’s 1971. Modern health and safety wouldn’t allow a group of old show gals (what is the correct collective noun, a show off? a Tiller? a quick change? a Langford? a Strallen?) to party in a building like this judging by Vicki Mortimer’s crumbly designs and Paule Constable’s gloomily atmospheric lighting.

Two unhappily married couples Buddy (Peter Forbes) and Sally (Imelda Staunton) and Ben (Philip Quast – who we saw in the same role in concert 10 years ago) and Phyllis (Janie Dee) reconnect at the do. Sally was in love with Ben then and he’s still an itch that needs scratching. As they quaff alcohol ghosts from the past materialise.

Between the bitching and bickering other ex-Weismann gals perform their old numbers. Our party were all very, very taken by Di Botcher‘s Hattie Walker with her showstopping “Broadway Baby” and while Phil decided Tracie Bennett took several rungs up the definitive ladder with her “I’m Still Here” Brent though she was overdoing it. Mind you Phil thought Brent was overdoing it as he sobbed through Staunton’s “Losing My Mind”, the angriest, most desperate delivery of the number Phil can remember. Look into those scarily mad eyes! Staunton already has Olivier Awards for three Sondheim roles: Into the Woods, Sweeney Todd and Gypsy. You wouldn’t want to be nominated in her category at the next awards.

It’s a huge leap of faith to entrust an untried director of musicals, Dominic Cooke on something of this scale and with this degree of expectation. His decision to stage it without an interval – as it was originally intended, and was for the original Broadway run – led to much pre-show bladder discussion. At our performance, mid way through previews, it was described as running at 2 hours 15 minutes, though the reality was nearer 2 and a half hours. Phil decided that if the call of nature overrode the call of showgirls d’un certain âge he would answer it during his least favourite number, “One More Kiss”. Fortunately the call didn’t come or he’d have missed what turned out to be one of the show’s highlights as Dame Josephine Barstow and Alison Langer as the old and young Heidis dueted together movingly.

But then it’s all rather moving as it’s staged on a revolve that refuses to sit still. We’d assumed that this most anticipated of productions would utilise the uppy-downy drum revolve. As the scenery was pushed aside just before the fantasy “Loveland” sequence Phil was expecting something spectacular to emerge from the depths of the theatre, with a wow factor like in the original London production; a revolving light-up staircase that emerged step by step from the depths. But no, despite Arts Council funding, even the National couldn’t stretch to that. Were we not alone eschewing the begging letters?  Perhaps they’re expecting a West End transfer, if that is economically viable.

“Loveland” is represented by some light, albeit pretty, chiffon. Ziegfeld would not have approved. And let’s not mention the “Beautiful Girls” number being performed on a vertiginous fire escape. Disappointing. Although as each woman descended a younger version of them in Follies garb, descends a raked ruined auditorium towards the back of the stage. Clever.

If some of it wasn’t perhaps as visually lavish as hoped, there’s a generous cast of 37 and an orchestra of 21. And it’s a production that can afford to throw scraps of parts to the likes of Basil Brush’s ex-partner Billy Boyle, who performs “Rain on the Roof” with Norma Atallah, and Gary Raymond (as Weismann) whose films include Look Back in Anger, El Cid, Suddenly Last Summer and The Greatest Story Ever Told for heaven’s sake.

“That’s what you’ve been waiting for” sings Roscoe (Bruce Graham) in the opening number – it couldn’t have been more true. If some of it didn’t quite live up to our impossible expectations then it’s hardly surprising. There are moments of brilliance and moments where (whisper it) it dragged slightly.

Ultimately James Goldman‘s book and Mr S’s lyrics tell a pretty bleak tale, sugared by some excellent performances from most of the cast, but not as sugared as the original London version which had a much more upbeat ending. In the day, Phil complained to Mr Sondheim (by post – remember letters?) about that revised ending and received a detailed hand typed (with no spacing between lines) reply from the man himself, justifying the decision. Phil must dig it out and share it with the world one day.

The orchestra is beautiful, Quast and Forbes have fine voices, Dee is, as ever, excellent especially in “Could I Leave You?” and the young versions of Buddy, Sally, Ben and Phyllis are performed charmingly by Fred Haig, Alex Young, Adam Rhys-Charles and Zizi Strallen. It’s a showbiz tale, so there had to be a Strallen in there somewhere. Indeed Zizi’s aunt (Bonnie Langford) was seated just a couple of rows behind us. How appropriately ageing showgirl is that?

We find ourselves duty bound to dust off the Strallometer rating again.

 

 

 

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11 Responses to “Review – Follies, National Theatre”

  1. Sal Says:

    A highly evocative description – bravo! Even Sondheim, the nightmare neighbour from Hell who was loathed by Katharine Hepburn, the lady who lived in the brownstone building next his on 49th street in Manhattan, would doubtless approve – Now that Imelda Marcos – sorry, Staunton – has set out to conquer all musical roles – can Buffalo Bill in Annie Get Your Gun be far away? – would it be impolitic to timidly hint that her role in Follies really requires a singer who can act, such as Dorothy Loudon or Barbara Cook, rather than the contrary?

    Alas both these ladies are dead, and if devoted readers of the Whingers recall correctly, Ms. Cook was not much appreciated by Phil and Andrew when she was still around. Even so, La Staunton’s squally vocals in her overrated Gypsy – agreed, she can do hysteria convincingly, but still, isn’t this relentless take-no-prisoners approach a bit wearing? – there must be a British singer once renowned for beauty who would have been better casting – Cleo Laine? Dame Shirley Bassey?

  2. johnnyfoxlondon Says:

    DId Jenna Russell really turn it down?


  3. Actually I thought all the veteran showgirls were a tad over-ripe in this production – it’s not ‘Waiting In The Wings: The Musical’ (although I’m sure that’s coming) it’s ladies in their fifties in 1971 remembering their wartime twenties, otherwise why do young Buddy and Ben dress as GI/SeaBees … so when Josephine Barstow has to be helped down just two steps, isn’t it time to see who else Covent Garden has finished with more recently?

    • Keith Cooper Says:

      Rather harsh on Dame Jo. By reasonable estimates that character would be around mid-seventies. She was after all a Weissman girl in 1918. If she’s helped down steps maybe that’s gallantry rather than frailty?

  4. Chris Says:

    Has Phil not heard of of the philanthopist spirit? Some people like to give to something they believe in without expecting anything in return.

    As all NT seats are subsidised seeing the show twice can hardly be considered “tossing a bit in their begging bowl”.


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