Follies at the National Theatre
It’s 1971, New York, and a gaggle of well-groomed women are arriving at the Follies chorus girls’ reunion. Entering the dilapidated Broadway theatre in which they once put on their world-famous shows, they brush shoulders with the ghosts of their past selves. In Dominic Cooke’s new production of Stephen Sondheim’s classic musical, the collision of past and present, of fresh and faded provides a glorious aesthetic that oozes pre-war glamour served up with nostalgic poignancy. It’s a place where crumbling brick wall gives way to sumptuous showgirl costumes. Where sequins in the darkness upstage glint like the embers of memories.
Once a year until the war, Weismann’s puts on a Follies show: a musical revue performed by mesmerising young girls to adoring audiences. There’s an aged representative from every year, and for each, a spectral counterpart stalking close by. Opulent apparel charts the vogues of the passing years; an elaborate art deco dress and towering headdress is a particular show-stealer.
A pastiche of 20s and 30s Broadway styles, the production could so easily seem derivative – just one more high-kicking musical. Yet the tap dancing, big dance numbers and razzmatazz style never seem a mere copy of an era, but a genuine relishing of the form and a celebration of a fine vintage in entertainment. The choreography is heart-sweeping. The songs are gut-wrenching. Even that breathless, idealistic New York manner of speech never seems shmaltzy, but instead summons the romance of classic films.
Imelda Staunton dazzles as present-day Sally, a study of irrepressible hope and vulnerability. The wonderfully dry Janie Dee commands attention as jaded beauty Phyllis. Philip Quast, Les Miserables’ definitive Javert, proves he hasn’t lost that profound voice and ability to hold a long note in the part of Ben.
In a flawless catalogue of songs, I’m Still Here still manages to be one of the standouts, showcasing Tracie Bennett’s charisma and anguish as movie star Carlotta. Who’s That Woman is a barn-stomping dance number that pulls out all the stops. The ethereal operatic beauty of One More Kiss roots septuagenarian soprano Josephine Barstow’s Follies girl in a still more distant heyday than the others. The Story of Lucy and Jessie is a whirlwind affair of pulse-quickening tap, high kicks and clever patter lyrics.
As they clamour for a vanished past, these former bright young things all want to live forever, but if they can’t have that, they’d settle for the consolation of being loved. Utterly winsome from the get-go, Follies will seduce even the perennially musical theatre-averse.
Photos: Johan Persson
Follies is at the National Theatre from 22nd August 2017 until 3rd January 2018. For further information or to book visit here.
Follies will be broadcast by NT Live to cinemas in the UK and internationally on Thursday 16th November 2017.
Watch the trailer for Follies here: