FringeReview UK 2017
This National Theatre Olivier production of Sephen Sondheim’s and James Goldman’s 1971 Follies is directed by Dominic Cooke, Vicki Mortimer’s set a half-demolished theatre with brick-dusted old seating. Bill Deamer’s choreography sashays in and out of different periods. Paule Constable’s lighting reinforces Mortimer’s slightly gothic-noir hallucination. Nigel Lilley’s band divides light and shade in the score – Jonathan Tunick’s arrangement – with the same crisp attack. Till January 3rd, 2018. Screened on NT Live November 16th, 2017.
Losing the moment is not only a danger – as some characters in Follies think – of missing the right partner, but of missing the right time to revive a slightly troubled but groundbreaking piece. Stephen Sondheim and James Goldman’s 1971 Follies hasn’t been seen in a major production since 1987, partly because it seemed unmatchable. So there are ghosts of performance too, just as in Follies itself each character – performer or lover – is haunted by their younger double.
This National Theatre production directed by Dominic Cooke at the Olivier hasn’t so much banished the past as reinvented it. The moment’s unquestionably right, performers at their long peaks in a reading that restores 1971 songs, elegantly shifts around Goldman’s book to maximise impact. It’s interpretively and possibly in all aspects the finest Follies there’s ever been.
The Olivier revolve quietly underlines the carousel of an ensemble piece this is, with Vicki Mortimer’s half-demolished theatre with brick-dusted old seating, discarded backstage machinery and a stairwell like an identifying double helix on the exterior, allowing ‘the girls upstairs’ – as the piece was first known – to strut and descend. They’re Weismann’s Follies (later shorting to ’Lies’) who flicker in neon a claim to glamorize the American Girl, Bill Deamer’s choreography sashaying in and out of different periods. Paule Constable’s lighting reinforces Mortimer’s slightly gothic-noir hallucination: deep shadows and garish fantasy. Nigel Lilley’s band divides light and shade in the score – Jonathan Tunick’s arrangement – with the same crisp attack.
The quartet of apparently mismatched couples who might have married the wrong person plays out, with doubles, against the valedictory reunion Dimitri Weismann (Gary Raymond who never ages) organizes in his old theatre a day before demolition. The returning dancers flounce on with sashes emblazoning years from 1918 to 1941. If they’re wild with all regret they’re often robust, defensively fragile and shudderingly funny. Nor is it quite a reunion. Chronology tells us some of the youngest weren’t born when their elders were already Weismann girls.
It’s touchingly evident when their younger doubles emerge with period costumes underscoring – at times – their haunted separateness from each other. It’s one of those tiny details emphasizing Follies’ vast microcosmic ambition in Cooke’s vision. Like something out of His Dark Materials – another Olivier ghost – each character has a daemon they sometimes interact with.
It’s even more poignant when Imelda Staunton’s Sally, still in love with Ben the man she didn’t marry, and Janie Dee’s Phyllis who did marry him are stared at almost reproachfully by their younger selves, Alex Young and Zizi Strallen. The latter’s the more tragic for her achingly eager desire to please the suave Ben contrasting with the hard-boiled embittered carapace Dee portrays she’s become, with graphically-described sexual compensations.
This is where Sondheim’s genius for stylised lyric, pastiche and innovative melodic phrasing emerges and transforms a concept into a language. There’s fine pastiches of Harold Arlen and a delicious wobble from Josephine Barstow’s Heidi Schiller as she can’t decide if it was Léhar or Oscar Strauss who wrote that tune for her (Sondheim plays imperceptibly with both near-identical idioms) through to the final numbers where pastiche, pure Sondheim and broken melodic lines usher in a new phase of writing. So in an evening of false starts and reunions in both periods (others too seem to play out in this rich collision) Staunton’s incandescent ‘Losing My Mind’ might be her Gershwinesque contribution to period music, but it’s devastating as one of the prime pieces of fractured sense the show culminates with, a collective breakdown of the four.
Dee and Strallen too play out a terrible folie a deux where younger and elder selves want to be their opposite in the Weill-like ‘The Story of Lucy and Jessie’ with more than a hint of ‘Jenny’ from Lady in the Dark. Dee’s sudden sloughing of invulnerability might seem a natural outcome but it’s hard-won.
Peter Forbes as Buddy, the apparently second-choice more emotive husband shows too how he’s strayed, his slipping-down sales in ‘The Right Girl’ about his young mistress. Emotionally more responsive, just like his wife Sally you wonder what’s so wrong for her apart from the fact they’re in Phoenix and Ben and Phyllis inhabit the UN world where latterly after a slip (it happens elsewhere too, to another couple Sam and Stella) Ben’s demoted to mere financier. Yet it’s the now failing Buddy who gave Ben his break. The flecks of dramatic irony in a piece not recognized for its driven plot are worth savouring.
Philip Quast’s urbane almost invulnerable Ben is the dark-lit horse of the production. Quast’s character seems always in control, emotionally remote till the final glitzy number with its chorus of dancers in ‘Live, Laugh, Love’ where he suddenly breaks down ‘I’m sorry’ directed straight to the audience. It’s breathtaking, seemingly a production mishap. Only by breaking into oneself, or selves, Follies suggests, can the past be both recovered with an emotional rebirth, and relinquished. The choices the characters arrive with end somewhere else.
That this is swirled round by other star turns though is the carousel on which Sondheim’s power to convey such time-refracted emotions is proved triumphantly. Pride of place must be accorded Tracie Bennett’s torching of ‘I’m Still Here’ starting out, like several characters including Di Botcher’s Hattie, sitting down. It doesn’t end that way – though it certainly stopped the show – as conversational lines turn melodic, thrumming with defiance and lyric fire.
Botcher’s Hattie Walker (1924) provides comedic undercutting of herself though more plangently in ‘Broadway Baby’ gaining strength; and Geraldine Fitzgerald’s defiantly glamorous Solange LaFitte manages to be elegantly laughed at. Dawn Hope’s Stella with her insistence on reviving the Mirror Dance turns the laughter general.
All ghosts and indeed the fractured idiom of the old Follies building have to condense and the way some late material is pushed just a bit further back to allow the force of the quartet’s realisations to play out, spell swift transitions and a seamless end to this two hour fifteen minute performance without interval. It’s wholly appropriate for a dreamlike start ending in nightmare and waking. It took a visit into past and pastiche to propel Sondheim’s language into a modernity no-one foresaw. This is the finest realisation of this Janus-faced masterpiece, ringing with towering performances: Staunton, Bennett, Dee, Quast and Forbes simply at the head. This must be the definitive production.
So it’s a sad and angry consolation as Geoffrey Hill once put it, that a music theatre piece, particularly Follies, should set the stage: Rufus Norris prefacing a matinee with the news ‘most of you will know’ and a visceral gap proving him wrong, of the passing of Sir Peter Hall, a colossus straddling drama and music.