In the last 30 years, London’s West End has seen all too many musical follies and, in a previous life as a regular theatre reviewer, I’ve had the misfortune to see a few – Children of Eden and the execrable Robin, Prince of Sherwood spring all-too-rapidly to mind.
But 29 years ago, as a birthday present, I took my mother to the Shaftsbury Theatre to see the star-studded first London production of Stephen Sondheim’s Follies.
Diana Rigg, Julia McKenzie, Daniel Massey, Eartha Kitt, Lynda Baron, Pearl Carr and Teddy Johnson – I said it was a glittering array of talent.
This introduction to Sondheim catapulted him into my pantheon of household gods, where he has remained ever since.
In the years since, A Little Night Music introduced The Other Half to his work – and to the idea that the musical theatre might not be totally naff after all.
I’ve had the fortune to catch a rare production of Frogs in a south London public baths and seen Imelda Staunton in the West End production of Into the Woods. There was the utterly magnificent National Theatre production of Sweeney Todd as a Cottesloe chamber opera, with McKenzie once more and Alun Armstrong, and Staunton in the recent Gypsy.
But as the clock ticked down to my visit to the National Theatre’s revival of Follies, it is hard to describe the excitement that was mixed with slight trepidation at the fear that it might prove a disappointment.
Pared back to the original one-act version and with the overly optimistic 1987 ending ditched, it is better than ever.
James Goldman’s book has often been criticised as lacking much of a story. He continued revising it until his death and it’s noted that, of the relatively limited number of productions that there have been, no two are the same. For that 1987 London production, for instance, Sondheim wrote two replacement songs on the basis of the casting – Diana Rigg not being a dancer was the reason behind one of these.
Certainly there’s little story, but within the context of this work, that actually helps.
The hook on which Follies hangs is a party that is being thrown in a decrepit old Broadway theatre that’s about to be demolished. In the interwar years, it had played host to the Weismann Follies (based on the Ziegfeld Follies) and the guests on this final night are mainly former showgirls.
The two central former chorines, Sally and Phyllis, had been good friends, but with WWII they had drifted apart, marrying Buddy and Ben respectively – friends who had courted them when they were on stage.
But neither couple is happy, with Sally having spent years nursing a flame for Ben that threatens to consume her.
At the theatre once more, as the ghosts of their young selves mill around them, the tensions come to a head.
So, that’s the ‘plot’. In which case, how does the show as a whole overcome such a slender storyline to be such a masterpiece?
Simply because, in removing any distraction of a more complex plot, it becomes a meditation on age, regret, missed opportunities, lost dreams, middle-aged cynicism and more.
And this is also why we’re drawn to the characters and why Follies demands such a top-notch cast.
Here, Dominic Cooke has given each present-day character a ghost – not just the central two couples – and it gives greater emphasis to this sense of being haunted by our pasts.
But of course the other thing that makes this such a masterpiece is the music. There are essentially two scores: the first features the numbers Sondheim wrote for the women to sing, reprising their glory days.
They are fabulous pastiches of various composers’ styles – pastiche, but never, ever parody – and Sondheim’s genius shines through in both music and lyrics. There are several showstoppers here.
Stella’s Who’s That Woman, with most of the other women, is one. Hattie’s Broadway Baby another and, of course, Carlotta’s I’m Still Here, given further poignancy in this production as the character starts singing it to various other party guests, almost as amusing anecdote, before they leave her and she is left to finish it alone, more brittle than ever.
But for me, the goosebumps really come as the elderly Heidi sings her Leharesque old hit, One More Kiss. Her voice quakes, but is then joined to the crystal clear coloratura of her younger self. It’s enough to make the eyes prick even thinking about it.
The second score is the book songs – classic Sondheim numbers such as Losing My Mind.
As the show moves to it’s finale, the differences between these two scores blur a little.
Follies, quite simply, leaves most other musical theatre mired in Earthbound mud as it soars above.
The cast is flawless. Staunton as Sally does, as always these days, hit the heights. But this is no solo piece. Janie Dee is a wonderfully acerbic Phyllis, Philip Quast is excellent as a man realising that his life is utterly lacking in any depth and Peter Forbes is every bit his equal as the confused and sad Buddy.
Alex Young, Zizi Strallen, Adam Rhys-Charles and Fred Haig all deserve praise as their respective ghosts.
It seems almost churlish not simply to reel off the rest of the cast. But particular standouts from the rest of what is, in so many ways, an ensemble, include Di Botcher as Hattie, Tracie Bennett as Carlotta and Dawn Hope as Stella.
And absolutely not forgetting operatic soprano Josephine Barstow – who has worked with the likes of Herbert von Karajan – as Heidi, with Alison Langer as her younger self.
The orchestra, under Nigel Lilley, is also excellent.
And if you want one final indicator of just how good this is – I’ve managed to get tickets to see it once again.
If you can’t make it to the theatre – it’s on until 3 January – then there is a live cinema screening next week, on 16 November; find your nearest venue here. I simply cannot recommend this enough.