Originally produced in 1971, and wisely with no attempt to update it in any way, Follies tells the story of a final reunion of the showgirls at New York’s Weismanns’ Follies, one of those Ziegfeld-type revue shows that hold a cult but unique place in the history of theatre. Ever since we all stopped watching the Tiller Girls on Sunday Night at the London Palladium, there’s been precious little remnant of this form of entertainment in the modern era. Even Burlesque has been handed down to us via a completely different route. We really are in another time and another place.
Sally and Phyllis were two friends who worked together in the Follies, and Buddy and Ben were the two boys who would wait for them to finish their show before taking them out for a night on the town. Ben was the prize guy – Buddy was just his mate; whichever of the girls (Phyllis) ended up with Ben will have “won”; the other (Sally) would make do with Buddy. But it was messy; with Ben having a fling with Sally whilst engaged to Phyllis, and their friendships all fell apart as a result. That was many years ago, and the reunion is an opportunity for Sally and Phyllis to heal old wounds. But, somehow, it doesn’t quite work that way. Meanwhile, the old hoofers and belters (aka the former Follies performers) relive their memories, recount how their lives have moved forward, renew old friendships and enmities, and are haunted by the ghosts of their former selves.
This was the very first show that Mrs Chrisparkle and I saw together after we had tied the proverbial knot way back in 1988; a production at the Shaftesbury Theatre, which we loved. On reflection, it was an interesting choice to start off our married life, seeing as how Stephen Sondheim’s view of marriage, which peppers this show like a bazooka blaster, is so bleak. Those first few days may be full of “you’re going to love tomorrow”, but pretty soon it’s “could I leave you?” Despite that, the show’s overwhelming message is one of survival. At the end, Sally’s dreams of rekindling love with Ben are dashed but Buddy seems willing to try again; Phyllis and Ben stay together because the alternative is just too hard to contemplate. The old-age singers and dancers are still knocking out their powerful songs and kicking their heels to any old show tune. Good times and bum times, they’ve seen them all and my dear, they’re still here. And that’s got to be good, hasn’t it?
Early on in the show, when the “beautiful girls”, each wearing their year sash, take to the very unglamorous fire-escape staircase for their grand entrance, you realise quite how anachronistic this whole piece is – on the surface. The girls are just being judged, or admired, at that stage for their visual heavenliness and how adroit they are at walking down stairs. The sash lends an element of Miss World to it, which, although it still happens every year, lost its place in the affections of the UK audience decades ago, as being very last century.
Going back briefly to that 1988 production, it boasted a wondrous cast – Julia McKenzie as Sally, Diana Rigg as Phyllis (although we saw her understudy); David Healy as Buddy and Daniel Massey as Ben. Amongst the older, supporting cast, we had Leonard Sachs, Dolores Gray, Adele Leigh, and Pearl Carr and Teddy Johnson. A substantial element of the impact of the show is that you must absolutely believe that the supporting cast of ex-Weismann Follies girls were once magnificently glamorous, superbly talented and just magic to watch. Thirty years ago at the Shaftesbury, the fact that they had really well-known performers on stage in these roles, totally emphasised this sense of enormous reputation. Today’s cast, at the Olivier, of old Follies girls, whilst still superbly skilful and a delight on stage, are not quite so famous, nor indeed as old, as in the earlier production. For instance, I know ladies never tell a lie about their age but from what I can gather online, Ms Janie Dee (Phyllis), Ms Tracie Bennett (Carlotta), Ms Di Botcher (Hattie) and Ms Dawn Hope (Stella) are all younger than me, goddammit. No wonder they’re all such great dancers.
If the framework and structure of the show now seems a little dated, the passions beneath the surface are as resounding now as they ever were. Sondheim’s score for this musical is definitely amongst his best; maybe it is his best. Broadway Baby, Too Many Mornings, Could I Leave You, Losing My Mind and the incomparable I’m Still Here are all held together with blood, sweat and tears. Ah, Paris!, You’re Gonna Love Tomorrow, and Buddy’s Blues make us laugh with a lump in our throats. The songs support James Goldman’s wistful book which builds up magnificent tension between the four main characters before they explode with emotional devastation. They will survive, against all the odds, because that’s the whole point of the show. But, boy, are they going to get raw first.
This production has Phyllis singing The Story of Lucy and Jessie as her “Follies” number, which was a huge disappointment to us because we much prefer the alternative song Ah, but Underneath. Apparently that song is only used when the actress playing Phyllis isn’t a natural dancer. Ah but Underneath is richly self-deprecatory with astoundingly clever turns of phrases, whereas Lucy and Jessie is just a trite patter song in comparison – something Cole Porter would have written, then chucked away. An odd judgment, in my opinion, to choose a far lesser song over a great one.
As soon as it was announced that Imelda Staunton would be starring in the new production of Follies, I knew that I finally had a reason to join the National Theatre’s Advance Member scheme, in order to be within a whiff of a chance of getting a good seat. It worked. Ms Staunton, who it seems can currently do no wrong (Gypsy, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf) chalks up another personal success with this superb mix of heartbreak and old-fashioned stamina. With her brilliantly inelegant dress and tastelessly showy hairdo, you can instantly see that this Sally doesn’t have the personal style of the others, whether it be through lacking the trappings of wealth or simply some natural flair. She’s a most charming, good-natured, walking failure. Her every scene reveals Sally’s desperate lack of self-confidence, and her waspish antagonism towards her unfaithful husband is a painful delight. For such a great singer as Ms Staunton, it’s a shame that Sally only really takes part in two songs; but her Too Many Mornings duet and Losing My Mind solo reveal what an extraordinary re-interpreter of musical classics she is.
We’d seen Janie Dee a few times before, most notably as Dolly Levi in Leicester’s Hello Dolly a few years ago, so I knew she was a fine exponent of the art of musical theatre. Here she invests Phyllis with a marvellously supercilious air and a wicked ability to go for the kill in any conversation; and her performance of Could I Leave You is riveting. Peter Forbes’ Buddy is a convincingly wretched piece of scum, as he tells Sally about his liaisons with the lovely Margie, guiltlessly matter-of-fact. The whole presentation of Buddy’s Blues is fantastic, with his Max Miller suit, strobe lighting comedy effect, and the revelation of just how lovely Margie really is. Philip Quast has the tough task of conveying the sullenness of the inward-looking Ben, but he does a good job with the ironic Live, Laugh, Love. And of course, there are the priceless moments of Di Botcher’s Broadway Baby, Dame Josephine Barstow’s One More Kiss and Tracie Bennett’s I’m Still Here. But the number that absolutely brought the house down? Dawn Hope leading all the girls with their taptastic performance of Who’s That Woman.
Each character has their own younger version, silently observing from close by. This is an intriguing theatrical device; it’s not always easy to tell if the older characters are being haunted by their younger selves or if the young ones are being shown up by the older ones. I think it’s fair to say that as we grow older we do think back to our younger days – after all, it’s quite easy; we remember them; we were there. When we’re young, we don’t so much think forward to our older days, because the future is a mystery; at best, all you can hope for is some comfort and satisfaction in a life well lived. I’m not sure to what extent the younger characters can say that of their older generation counterparts in this show. The delightful Alex Young and Zizi Strallen are almost criminally wasted as young Sally and Phyllis, with excellent support from Fred Haig and Adam Rhys-Charles as their young suitors; but it’s worth the wait for their brilliant rendition of You’re Gonna Love Tomorrow/Love Will See Us Through.
I’d read some rather disappointing reviews of this production; well, I don’t know what the hell those people were watching. This is as crisp, as telling, as emotional and as musically rewarding as you could possibly wish for. Irresistibly moving, it’s what musical theatre is all about. Go see it for yourself!
P. S. The show comes in at around 2 hours 20 minutes with no interval. Apparently, this is in keeping with Sondheim’s original intent that there should be no break; that’s all very well for a youngish man of 41 (as Sondheim was at the time) but it’s tough on a packed matinee full of pensioners. Yes, I can see the artistic merit in taking it through without the distraction of a break, but if you spend the last half hour worrying whether your bladder is going to burst, you might as well have Her Majesty the Queen breakdancing naked on stage and you still won’t be able to concentrate on it. Say, Mr Producer, be kind to your audiences and preserve the very practical tradition of the interval!
Production photos by Johan Persson