REVIEW: ‘Follies’, National Theatre

Follies‘, National Theatre

  New York, 1971. Former showgirls the Follies come together for the last time at the Weismann Theatre, on the eve of its demolition, with plans to build yet another parking lot.

  Having performed there between the two World Wars, the party gives the Follies a chance to reminisce about their time performing at the theatre in its heyday.

  As ghosts of their past haunt their present, however, the women are confronted with their own realities, very different from the glittering illusions of the fantasies of their past.

  After a sold-out run at the National Theatre in 2017, Olivier Award-winning musical ‘Follies’ returned to the National’s Olivier Theatre this year for a strictly limited run. With music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and a book by James Goldman, featuring direction from Dominic Cooke, ‘Follies’ is a gorgeous musical that showcases the glamour of the theatre, whilst warning of its ephemeral existence.

  This exquisite revival is beautifully realised, a nostalgic celebration of past glory, injected with the pathos of a crumbling reality.

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The cast of Follies. Photo credit: Johan Persson

  The musical begins with the Majordomo organising his staff, as they prepare to receive the Follies, other esteemed guests, and Dimitri Weismann himself. As the Follies arrive, each is given a gold sash, upon which the date of their Follies year emblazoned across it. Over the course of the evening, the guests talk, laugh and reminisce, with the Follies girls even performing an old musical number.

  The musical has a particular focus on two couples – Sally and Buddy, and Phyllis and Ben. Unhappy in their marriages, we sense a complexity in the relationships of these four characters,  which is revealed in some part as they each share with us their memories.

  The Follies were once adored, celebrated for their youth, beauty, innocence and idealism, now corrupted with the passing of time. The women, who have tried to hold onto some former glamour, are all too aware that they are no longer the same as they once were, and with this awareness comes the realisation that their lives off stage, outside the theatre, were not as glamorous as those lived on stage.

  Joanna Riding’s Sally Durant Plummer is the first to arrive at the party, entering with a palpable excitement which, by the end, will become an obsessive neurosis. Though married to Buddy, she has always loved Ben, played with diplomatic grace by Alexander Hanson, and, when she bumps into him at the party, she becomes like a young girl glowing with the first flush of love. She tries to reassure both of them that she is living in contentment in Buddy’s arms, where she continues to be seen as young and beautiful. In the moments Sally and Ben steal together, we flickers of the passion their younger selves are slaves to. Striking a perfect balance, Riding gives us a sense of the mounting unhappiness of the character, ruled by a despairing hopelessness that emerges in her heartache, which culminates with her tragically affecting rendition of torch song ‘Losing My Mind’, where the character relies on drink and drugs to help cope with the pain of an unrealised love, steeped in a devastating 1930s Hollywood beauty.

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The cast of Follies. Photo credit: Johan Persson

  Riding displays a great emotional depth that develops into a mental deterioration as, after somewhat childishly believing that her and Ben could run away together and be married, she ends up heartbroken when confronted with a reality she has avoided thus far, mourning the loss of the fantasy she hoped for.

  Peter Forbes’ endearing Buddy Plummer is imbued with a rough charm typical of the travelling salesman. We learn that he has fooled around with several young women in the past, but has found a good thing with Margie, with whom he has maintained steady extra-marital relationship, and he finds himself torn between his love for Sally, and Margie’s love for him. Despite his comic performance in ‘The God-Why-Don’t-You-Love-Me Blues’, Forbes’ Buddy is far from the clown, and we pity the character somewhat whose real love is not, and has never been, requited.

  Janie Dee’s Phyllis is extraordinarily watchable, her renditions of ‘Could I Leave You?’ – in which she exclaims to her husband Ben that she left him a long time ago – and ‘The Story of Lucy and Jessie’ definite highlights of the show. Stylish, elegant, regal, refined, Phyllis has made attempts to distance herself from elements of her past, particularly what she hopes is now  a forgotten love between Sally and Ben. There is an emotional detachment in Phyllis, as though she is protecting herself from her passionless marriage. Doling out sarcastic one-liners, Phyllis lived a life by bargaining, by being decisive and making choices in her life, and by sticking to them and, it would seem, by repressing those memories that might cause her pain or regret.

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Joanna Riding (Sally) and the cast of Follies. Photo credit: Johan Persson

  In a musical of infinite great performance, other notable moments consist of Tracie Bennett’s impressive turn as Carlotta Campion, whose performance of ‘I’m Still Here’ conveys a powerful and spirited sense of survival, despite the ups and downs, the ‘good times’ and ‘bum times’, that make up her life. Josephine Barstow’s Heidi Schiller is laudable, her striking performance of ‘One Last Kiss’ a love song to theatre, as though the song refers to the parting of lovers, the character might very well be singing it to the theatre, which she petitions for ‘one last glimpse of the past’. The mirror number in the first half of the show in ‘Who’s That Woman’ is astonishing, as the woman join together one last time, dancing from muscle memory, as the younger reflections of themselves begin to take over, before all are dancing together.

  Vicki Mortimer’s design places us in the now crumbling foundations of the Weismann Theatre. The red plush velvet seats, the gold filigree, the vanity lighting, all give us a fragile glimpse at the former glory of this theatre – the rubble, the scaffolding, the hanging wires, the dust, in stark contrast, an eerily affecting image. The set is a metaphor mirroring the collapse of the fractured lives of these characters, and what begins as an evening of nostalgic celebration ends as a backdrop for heartache and, in some cases, mental deterioration. This theatre, this producer of fantasy is, when stripped of its golden trappings, a brick and mortar reality that, like the imminent demolition of the building, hits with wrecking-ball force.

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Alexander Hanson (Ben) and Janie Dee (Phyllis) in Follies. Photo credit: Johan Persson

  Alongside Mortimer’s design, Paule Constable’s lighting design aids with the conjuring of faded glory, as spotlights search for characters, and the stage glistens with golden hues, whilst subtly hinting at the darkness of a reality that seeps through the cracks of the crumbling theatre. The show’s creative elements add an eerily realistic weight to the characters’ memories, to the point that their past and present selves react to each other, occasionally to interact, as though much more than mere memory. The turning of the stage’s central revolve reminds us that things come and things go, but nothing lasts forever. The musical’s non-linear story-line helps create a discordant chronology that places past and present in conjunction with one another, at times allowing them to mirror each other, and characters watch helplessly as past and future versions of themselves make choices.

  The orchestra of 21, who perform the musical’s iconic songs live, are behind a screen at the back of the theatre, only just visible, as though they too are phantoms that exist to inject an audible dimension to memory.

  The production is precisely coordinated and well choreographed, and with no intermission, audience members are held captive by the glittering phantasm of this gilded fantasy, and it is not until after Ben’s ‘Live, Laugh, Love’ that the chaos subsides, the madness dissipates, that the characters are unforgivingly confronted with their realities, just as audience members are at the close of the show, when they too must leave the unparalleled, glorified, dreamlike escapism that the theatre breeds.

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Alexander Hanson (Ben) and Tracie Bennett (Carlotta Campion) in Follies. Photo credit: Johan Persson

  There exists a haunting poignancy as shadows of the past haunt a stage that was once the setting for processions of youth and beauty, of life and of love, as spectral apparitions of the Follies’ younger selves, beautifully adorned in costumes that are the very epitome of class, stalk the characters and pervade their present realities, often mirroring their movement in a gentle mocking of what they once were.

  One notable scene in the musical transports both characters and audiences to Loveland, ‘where everybody lives to love’, a place where time stops, and where youth and beauty are everlasting, where Vaudevillian sets and costumes and pastiche songs are used to expose the folly of youth, and the individual follies of Sally, Buddy, Phyllis and Ben, the gaudy extravagance causing us to sink into a fantastical oblivion that disconnects us from the reality of what is about to happen.

  The production ends in what seems an inevitable railing of our characters at their younger selves, for making the choices in life that they did. When Ben forgets his line during the closing song, and all the characters begin to sing, and then shout, over one another, the cacophony of voices soon gives way to violent sobbing, as Ben and Sally drop to the floor, crippled by the confrontation of reality, before they are led over the rubble of the theatre towards an uncertain future.

  The musical brings to mind a speech from William Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’, spoken by Prospero in Act 4, Scene 1: “Our revels now are ended. These our actors… were all spirits, and Are melted… into thin air: And like the baseless fabric of this vision… shall dissolve, And, like this insubstantial pageant faded, Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff As dreams are made on”. A fitting testimony. 

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The cast of Follies. Photo credit: Johan Persson

  We are warned that every height has a drop, and the Follies have been perched atop a fantasy, to the point where many of them became disillusioned with theatrical illusion. The Follies were raised up as visions of what beauty could be, were admired and adored, with nowhere to climb, the only option remaining being descending down the steps of the theatre one last time, as they descend into a reality that finally awakens them from a dreamlike desire to cling to the ghosts of their past, to youth and to beauty, to things that do not, that cannot, last.

  This is a spectacular story of lives lived, of laughs shared and of loves lost, but when the glory and the glamour fades, when the glittering lies, falsities and pretences are exposed, when the sun rises in the morning, we are left with the impending demolition of hopes, dreams and fantasies.

  A celebration of theatre, in what is a wonderful demonstration of what theatre can do, ‘Follies’ also gives a nod to the inability of theatre to last forever. Whilst that may be the case, however, the memory of shows such as this one threatens to do just that.

  A true masterpiece, ‘Follies’ is a triumphant theatrical event.

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The cast of Follies. Photo credit: Johan Persson

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