Wednesday, 25 October 2017

Follies, National Theatre

"Follies" is one of those shows that is Broadway legend. Its original production was legendary both in its ambition and in how under-appreciated it felt at the time - losing its entire investment after running a year and three months. It's a tough show, unlike many in that it examines the escapism that musicals usually represent and sees how temporary and fleeting that escapism can be - the loneliness and failure that the escapism can't ever really relieve.

The underlying premise, a reunion of ex-showgirls as the theatre where they once were glorified is about to be demolished, sticks the show fairly firmly in its original 1971 period (modernising it would mean that the oldest of the girls, an operetta singer who goes back to 1918, would be at the very youngest around 115). And as the show goes on, it brings into focus two of the girls and their two husbands - one was in love with the guy who married the other, and both marriages have soured, due to distance, changing ambitions, the weight of time, or simply an aching empty space where desire used to live. There are two types of songs - plot songs (between the main quartet) and "party pieces" for the other girls, most of which illuminate in some way the theme of faded glamour and the way time has worn on them. Throughout the cast are accompanied by younger spectral figures of their youth  - the very present pasts that everybody carries with them.

There's elements that stick out today more than they perhaps would have originally (in the week after the Harvey Weinstein revelations, a moment when the producer of the Follies remembers how the casting couch used to be plays somewhat differently than it might have a week earlier, and the somewhat more casual references to extra-marital affairs is very much a seventies thing more than it would be post-AIDS), but the common description of the show has been that Sondheim's songs soar but Goldman's book is flat. I didn't find it so - yes, the book is tight and, rightly, gives the deeper emotional expressions to the songs as is suitable for a musical, but it diagrams very clearly how distastrously wrong these people have gone, giving space for the songs to expand on them.

This production has all the lavishness the National Theatre can bring to a production of this nature, on its biggest stage, the Olivier. And as importantly it brings the acting talent to bring across the pain under the glamour. Imelda Staunton as maybe the most damaged of the characters is astoundingly good, both singing the haunting "Losing my Mind" and in acting as it becomes increasingly clear how unfaded her passion is (in the central relationships, it becomes clear that "Sweeney Todd" isn't the only horror musical Sondheim's ever written - there's horror in just how broken these people are as well). Phillip Quast as the unsatisfied man who she loves but who abandoned her has perhaps the trickiest part - he's a white rich successful guy who never the less feels empty inside, and it's a credit to him that we care for the indecisive broken arsehole as much as we do (even as, minutes after a deep romantic ballad between him and Staunton, he's running away from their relationship and hitting on other women). Janie Dee plays Quast's wife, who acquired layers of sophistication to become worthy of him but also a layer of ennui and self hatred that she finds difficult to shift - her "Could I leave you" is a lush vomit of vitriol that remains compelling in its dark penetrating wit. Peter Forbes plays Staunton's husband, somewhat aware he's always been second prize but unable to let go of the woman he's always loved.

The various party-piece-performers seize their various moments - Di Botcher lands "Broadway Baby" as the standard it's always been, Dawn Hope leads most of the women in the ultimate production number "Who's that Woman", and Tracie Bennett slightly channels Judy Garland to bring an "I'm still Here" that stands strong with the many great women who have sung it.

There are perhaps a couple of elements of Dominic Cooke's production that delay it getting off the ground as cleanly as it might (it slightly over-prologues the show, which means focus doesn't come until the third song, "Waiting for the Girls Upstairs") and at least one element towards the end could be accused of over-underlining matters (as a flashing "Follies" sign suddenly loses the "Fol"). But otherwise it's a very solidly strong production. It's not a show that could ever be called light entertaiment. But it's a powerful show that leaves you shattered and enthralled.

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