FOLLIES at the National Theatre
When I first saw Dominic Cooke’s revival of Follies at the National Theatre in September 2017, I was overwhelmed by its beauty, heart and capacity for happiness. Returning to the production on its final matinee in the West End, I’m reminded of the show’s darkness, sorrow and hopelessness. I’m so glad I came.
Sondheim’s Follies is a much cherished show of which a perfect production is difficult to achieve, and each has been debated at length down to minor details, including extensive discussion as to the colour Sally’s dress ought to be so as not to detract from Phyllis’ often red outfit later in the show. Cooke’s production not only side-steps potential pot holes and challenges presented by the script, it presents a stronger narrative and structure for some clever changes: the show is intensified and heightened by running without an unnecessary interval, the returning Follies girls are allowed to talk about their lives through the guise of an interview and the ghosts of their past selves stalk the crumbling set with a haunting dignity, the huge Olivier stage never feels empty, nor does the forty-strong cast feel like a lost crowd, the details are precise and exquisite.
Prior to its return to the National Theatre, this production was already glorious, from its design, perfectly capturing the spirit of the famous image of Gloria Swanson amidst the crumbling ruins of the Roxy Theatre which inspired Sondheim to write Follies, to its staging, flooding the stage with memories of the past that bubble with tension until they reach a boiling point, creating theatrical magic in the Loveland sequence.
Of course, any production of this beloved show sinks or swims by its casting, and the central four performances are played together wonderfully by the talented cast assembled here. Janie Dee recreates her stunning portrayal of Phyllis; icy and sharp, she is Dynasty mixed with Desperate Housewives and commands the audience to worship her. While her ‘Could I Leave You’ is a still and purposeful, with a simmering intensity, in ‘The Story of Lucy and Jessie’ she is an explosion of fiery passion (sans red dress) and wows with her jazzy vocals and full out choreography. Peter Forbes returns to play Buddy with sincerity, warmth and frustration, grasping the character’s emotional conflict even better than in his first, excellent performance.
New to the cast are Joanna Riding as Sally and Alexander Hanson as Ben. Hanson was a saving grace of a bizarre concert production of this show at the Royal Albert Hall in 2015 and is even better here. Though his Ben takes some time to ignite, he is believably charismatic, regretful and fundamentally flawed. Opposite him, Riding takes an entirely different approach to Sally Durant Plummer than her predecessor in the role, Imelda Staunton, playing a far more brazen, desperate and unhinged Sally, vying unapologetically for the affections of her beloved and with little remorse for either of their spouses. Riding breaks with convention here completely, exhibiting little shyness or inhibition in her Sally and turning on its head completely the famous torch-song, ‘Losing my Mind’, in which her anguish is agonising and her performance is triumphant.
Riding’s casting also means the modulation that was added to lower the ending of ‘Too Many Mornings’ has thankfully been removed. Effortless soprano ensues.
The supporting cast hardly disappoint either. Tracie Bennett’s ‘I’m Still Here’ is anticipated as the showstopper that it is as she brings her signature firecracker energy to it, pounding the air of the Olivier auditorium with her tiny, determined fists. Dawn Hope also deserves a mention for leading ‘Who’s that Woman’, one of Sondheim’s rare traditional musical theatre ‘numbers’, with gusto aplenty, drawing applause from the audience I started to think might never end.
Top 200 reviewer12 Oct 2019