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Joseph Wicks

Review: FOLLIES at The National Theatre

Follies - National Theatre The National Theatre and director Dominic Cooke have created an exquisite, nuanced and stylish revival of Stephen Sondheim’s arching epic musical of nostalgia, memories, regret and hope. Every aspect of this production is lavish and flawless: the acting is sublime, each character is full and resonates with truth; the voices are remarkable; the orchestra just sings (masterfully conducted by Nigel Lilley); costume is elegant and every showgirl unique; Bill Deamer’s classy choreography ranges from achingly graceful to pure jazzy showbiz.

It is huge, with a cast of nearly forty and twenty one musicians. Whilst the show itself may be a slightly flawed collage of a piece, this production goes back to the original 1971 Broadway version and the flaws are part of its singularly unique charm and true to the initial vision. There are countless individual performances in FOLLIES that are quite simply outstanding.

The year is 1971 and there is a reunion party in the grand, dusty old theatre before it is demolished, perfectly captured by Vicki Mortimer’s broken down, stripped back set design. The Weismann Follies were the height of New York interwar theatrical glamour and the girls return to reminisce, wandering through their rich memories of the glory days. The plot revolves around two couples: Ben and Phyllis, Sally and Buddy. Best of friends, back in the old times, who slowly reveal the cracks in their marriages. We discover unrequited love, bitterness, a possible suicide attempt and adultery. A long way from their idealist, ‘folly of youth’ bright-eyed younger selves that we also meet. In fact every single character has their own haunting young counterpart, a living memory of the past woven around the present day. As the older showgirls descend the stairway to the party, their youthful, glittery shadows mirror the entry in background sepia. It is like sifting through a box of old photos; fragmented, half-remembered, overlapping memories, and then occasionally something that hits you right in the heart and moves you to joy or overwhelming sadness. Nostalgia can indeed be painful.

Imelda Staunton as Sally Durant simply stuns. She starts as an excitable small-town housewife, thrilled to be back in the big city, but she slowly reveals her heart to us with incredible subtlety. ‘Losing my Mind’ has such power I would return simply to hear it again. Janie Dee is brilliantly acerbic and dry-witted as Phyllis and is a fantastic dancer. Tracie Bennett as film star Carlotta shines in ‘I’m still here’ a torch song of resilience, an entire biography in one song. Di Botcher sells us an uncynical young hopeful’s dream as Hattie with ‘Broadway Baby’. Josephine Barstow and Alison Langer as old/young Heidi duet in the touching operatic ‘One More Kiss’. In ‘Who’s That Woman?’ the older showgirls prove they can still smack those dance routines out of the park. Philip Quast (Ben) and Peter Forbes (Buddy) are strong and charismatic throughout, as are the young versions of the couples. There are simply too many to mention.

The show is about 2h15 with no interval, and it’s really not a problem. There are three opportunities for readmission if your bladder just can’t wait, but I was so transfixed I don’t think I saw a single person leave.

I’m sure it will be tricky to secure a ticket for the rest of the run, however the excellent NT live will broadcast FOLLIES to cinemas in the UK and internationally on Thursday 16 November.