Review of Sondheim’s Follies by Christopher Walker. Playing at the South Bank’s National Theatre until May 11 th https://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/shows/follies Box Office: 020 7452 3000
The National Theatre’s revival of Follies is a major theatrical event all serous theatre-goers must see.
A hymn to the lost glamour of Broadway, Follies has become a Broadway legend in itself. The
magical story of a reunion of a dozen old showgirls has lost none of its touch.
It is a wonderful exploration of what happens when you are confronted with your past, your choices
now, and of rocky relationships (a frequent Sondheim theme). Don’t go if you are breaking up. Or
rather do go – as long as you have a strong stomach. And a strong bladder. Two and a quarter hours
without an interval is gruelling.
The show is set up as a reunion party given by old time impresario Dimitri Weismann (a thinly veiled
Flo Ziegfeld – the showman behind the real “Follies”). He’s wonderfully creepy and well played by
Gary Raymond (the original baddie in “Jason and the Argonauts” – the 1963 cult movie). An old timer
Set in a condemned theatre, Director Dominic Cooke’s production is haunting. Between numbers a
single tinkling piano somewhere downstage captures the feeling perfectly. Every character is
shadowed by the ghost of themselves (beautifully costumed), thirty-plus years ago. No wonder the
cast is massive (41, and a band of 21). The original Broadway production was a 522 night success,
and a financial disaster. You can see how.
The Four central characters, and the emotional entanglements between them, are carefully
examined. They form a sort of ‘love quadrangle.’ Provincial Sally, the excellent Joanna Riding, brings
the house down with “Losing Your Mind.” Janie Dee successfully captures New York sophisticate
Phyllis, not least in the tongue twisting “Story of Lucy and Jessy.” Their (cheating) beaux compliment
them well. Particularly Peter Forbes (Buddy), familiar to movie-goers currently in “The Wife.” Rising
star Ian McIntosh also deserves a mention as Ben’s (dashing) ‘ghost.’
But this show is about the Girls. It has become a vehicle for mature female performers to remind
audiences of just what they’ve got. And what a lot of they’ve got. Claire Moore (Hattie) blasting out
“Broadway Baby”. Lovable Dawn Hope (Stella), taking the old girls through “The Mirror Number.” A
delightful cameo by Grand Opera diva Felicity Lott as Heidi (matched perfectly with her sweetly-sung
‘ghost’ – Alison Langer). Above all there’s Tracie Bennett’s Carlotta, proclaiming her hymn “I’m still
here.” Elaine Stritch once said an actress only earned the right to perform that song once she
reached 80. We’ll let Bennett off for her spirited rendition.
The audience, especially the women, roared their approval. You might think it’s hard to tell this tale
today – beautiful girls plucked from obscurity, and paraded on stage. But watch the 1941 movie
“Ziegfeld Girl” and you realize the “Follies” was strangely empowering. It was 1930’s “Girl Power.”
They had far more success and money than their menfolk. And New York was at their feet.
This piece doesn’t so much smell of New York – it reeks of it. When I worked on Sixth Avenue, close
to Ziegfeld’s original theatre, we’d go after shows to a bar wrapped round an oversized grand piano
down in the Village. Hoofers sat next to Upper East Side dames. Every night we sang through Follies,
word by word. It really has become Broadway legend.
Follies may be approaching 50, but Sondheim’s Golden Girls have lost none of their magic.