Review: Follies10:41, 21st September 2017
A lavish production with huge cast and orchestral accompaniment, and some of Sondheim’s best songs.
It is 1971: the Broadway theatre in which a number of showgirls performed in the 20s and 30s is to be pulled down, and all (with their husbands or partners) have been invited back for one last party in the building. Arriving with a mixture of nerves and bravado, these once-young and beautiful people explore the realities of what their lives have become. More or less universally, they’d have liked it to be different.
The show has a narrative, following four lead characters through an evening that one might imagine takes about twice as long as the actual extent of the production, and there are some narrative songs which fit into the dialogue, but it also features set-pieces to the audience in which characters break out into sung-soliloquy moments of nostalgia, disappointment or self loathing, and, in its second half, a gloriously surreal series of pastiches invoking early 20th-century Broadway cabaret-style numbers, which explore the disillusionment of the main characters.
A decision to cut the interval, meaning that the show runs for two-and-a-quarter hours straight through isn’t, in my view, entirely justified. While there are productions the momentum of which would be broken by an interval, this one feels like it deserves one: there is a very obvious ‘end of act one’ big number in the middle, which finishes with a flourish, after which the show simply goes on – and the overall sense of frustration, deflation, and defensiveness which the actors so fantastically convey becomes rather unrelenting. There’s a lot to be said for tension, and plenty of it here, but the audience could have benefitted, I felt, from a break.
However, it’s a wonderful show. There isn’t a weak link in the company, and it is glorious to see older actors tap-dancing and belting their hearts out alongside their youthful co-stars with such depth, gravitas and emotional truth. The cast is huge, and there are too many to name, but Janie Dee’s whole performance as Phyllis shimmers with restraint and hidden damage, culminating in a rendition of ‘The Story of Lucy and Jessie’ which is genuinely exhilarating to watch. Meanwhile Josephine Barstow reduced many in the audience to tears with her paradoxically quavering operatic strength and rootedness in ‘One More Kiss’, expertly emulated by Alison Langer who joins half way through the song as Heidi Schiller’s younger self.
The costumes, particularly those of the young ‘Follies’ – shadows of their younger selves which haunt the older characters throughout – are, of course, divine: a masterclass in theatrical costume-making and so beautiful against designer Vicki Mortimer’s backdrop of piled dusty seats and crumbling red brick walls. Bill Deamer’s choreography, too, is perfect for the piece.
While stunning, it’s a rather bleak representation of the ‘autumn years’; but that isn’t detrimental – it’s very well done, and on many levels a student group would benefit enormously from the chance to see it.
Follies is playing at the National Theatre until 3 January 2018. For further information and tickets, go to www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/shows/follies-whats-on-listing
Sarah Lambie is the editor of Teaching Drama. Having studied English at Cambridge University and acting at Bristol Old Vic Theatre school, she is also a working actress, tutor and drama workshop leader.