×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

London Theater Review: ‘Follies’ With Imelda Staunton at the National Theatre

With:
Julie Armstrong, Norma Atallah, Josephine Barstow, Jeremy Batt, Tracie Bennett, Di Botcher, Billy Boyle, Janie Dee, Anoushka Eaton, Liz Ewing, Geraldine Fitzgerald, Peter Forbes, Emily Goodenough, Bruce Graham, Adrian Grove, Fred Haig, Aimee Hodnett, Dawn Hope, Liz Izen, Alison Langer, Emily Langham, Sarah-Marie Maxwell, Ian McLarnon, Leisha Mollyneaux, Gemma Page, Kate Parr, Philip Quast, Edwin Ray, Gary Raymond, Adam Rhys-Charles, Jordan Shaw, Imelda Staunton, Zizi Strallen, Barnaby Thompson, Christine Tucker, Michael Vinsen, Alex Young.

Guess that’s why they call him God. Stephen Sondheim’s paean to old Broadway, “Follies,” hasn’t had a full-bodied British revival since its West End premiere 30 years ago. With a cast that includes Imelda Staunton, director Dominic Cooke’s lavish, languid staging – his first-ever musical – showcases its riches, letting “Follies” stretch out in full on the vast Olivier stage. Played in designer Vicki Mortimer’s crumbling Broadway theater – its brick walls half-bulldozed, its stalls swallowed by rubble – it lets old ghosts mingle with lost souls and becomes much, much more than a mere memory play. Instead, it grows into something far more profound – a philosophical meditation on the passage of time and the agonies of aging.

Artistic director Rufus Norris’ National Theatre has quietly set about scrutinizing America and its ideals. From “The Flick” to “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” via “Angels in America,” there’s a line of enquiry that spans today’s pressing identity issues: class, race and sexuality. They’ve been his big hits, and “Follies” follows suit. If Sondheim and James Goldman’s musical was, originally, a nostalgic fanfare for old Broadway as its glamour gave way to decay, right now it looks like a lament for the whole nation. Mortimer’s crumbling theater could stand for a country caving in, and Gary Raymond’s Weismann, its proprietor, has a touch of Abe Lincoln about him. The bulbs on his billboard have blown, leaving the word “lies” flickering overhead. “Follies” critiques America’s evergreen image – fresh faces with fixed smiles – while the same old male stiffs pull the strings.

Popular on Variety

It’s set at a Broadway reunion – the “first and last” for Dimitri Weismann’s legendary vaudeville revue. With the theater marked for demolition, making space for another blank office block, the stars and chorines of the pre-war era revisit their old haunt. It’s 1971; New York’s run down and its showgirls have aged. As they reminisce and trot through old routines, their younger selves – shimmering in silvery, sequined ballgowns – hover on the edges of this ruined auditorium like ghosts in the wings. They sit in dusty red velvet seats, hang off skeletal staircases and stare into burnished mirrors backstage. It’s like a showbiz séance of sorts; glittering and ghostly, lustrous and spectral.

At its center are two middle-aged couples – former showgirls and their fellas – whose marriages have stalled in middle-age. Sally Durrant (Imelda Staunton), now a small-town mother of two, is toying with ditching her dull husband Buddy (Peter Forbes) to rekindle proceedings with her old flame Ben Stone (Philip Quast). Rather than following through on their fling, he married her friend and fellow “Folly” Phyllis Rogers (Janie Dee). Reunited for the first time in years, the past comes flooding back to them all. Their dashing younger selves – carefree and loved up – dance off with one another.

It all positively aches with sadness and regret – an elegy for lost youth and missed chances; “The Road Not Taken,” as one song has it. While the two young showgirls (Zizi Strallen and Alex Young) in their matching floaty, floral dresses, are like peas in a pod, their older selves have seized up. Staunton’s Sally has become a rattle of anxieties, breathless at a chance to turn back the clock, while Dee makes clear that Phyllis has constructed her classy exterior, teaching herself “the art of life.” Their husbands, meanwhile, have filled out for the good: Buddy, an oil executive with a 29-year-old mistress; Ben, a respected philanthropist and politician. Superficially, it seems mighty unfair, but the men are no better off or happier with their lot. They’re no longer the handsome suitors waiting at stage door, nor the young soldiers bravely heading off to war. Cooke catches the mood of a night of nostalgia: from the bubbles of champagne on arrival to the headache that follows the hard stuff later on.

Sondheim’s split score, which combines affectionate vaudeville pastiches with heartfelt book numbers, expands the theme through other showgirl stories. One delirious old couple are still dancing 50 years later; an old flirt is still flitting between gorgeous young men. Di Botcher belts “Broadway Baby” with an impish delight, luxuriating in her follow spot and briefly reliving her youth, while Tracie Bennett’s movie star suggests the price of fame with a slur and a slight shake, singing “I’m Still Here” like a survivor with shellshock. Ensemble numbers give us the joyous spectacle of middle-aged women dancing toe-to-toe with their svelte young selves, matching them tap-for-tap in Bill Deamer’s witty, eloquent routines.

That split allows Goldman’s book to loosen itself from its situation – the reunion – and float, instead, into something more metaphorical. Mortimer’s design, too wrecked to host a party, releases “Follies” from its reality, and Cooke’s production blossoms into a rich, melancholic meditation on life and old times. If the present’s in technicolor and the past in greyscale, Sondheim’s score seems to set memory to a melody. The here-and-now might be humdrum, but it’s the past that sparkles and sings. Nostalgia fills it up with feeling.

With that, Cooke and Mortimer stress the theatrical setting – so critical to the musical’s overall meaning. Throughout, Goldman and Sondheim entwine the ideas of the past and performance together. Reunions are places we perform our identities and re-enact the past. So are memories – private shows that play out in our heads. With past and present selves, there are public and private ones too, and it’s striking to clock who’s watching who. Strallen’s young Phyllis looks on at the woman she’ll become, while Staunton marvels at her former self. Several of Sondheim’s songs are about being seen – “In Buddy’s Eyes,” “Who’s That Woman” – as if one’s sense of oneself is reflected in others’ eyes. Forbes suggests Buddy takes comfort in his young mistress’ gaze, while Quast’s Ben longs to be looked at like a lover.

The theater, in “Follies,” is like the forest in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” – a place where people act out their fantasies and, indeed, their follies. Paradoxically, it’s also a place that gives us the truth. If the foursome all realize how much they’ve been faking, they also come to see that the whole world’s a ruse. Divine.

London Theater Review: 'Follies' With Imelda Staunton at the National Theatre

Olivier, National Theatre, London; 1150 seats; £65 ($85) top. Opened, reviewed Sept. 6, 2017. Running time: 2 HOURS, 15 MIN.

Production: A National Theatre production of a musical in one act with book by James Goldman and music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim.

Creative: Directed by Dominic Cooke; Design, Vicki Mortimer; choreographer, Bill Deamer; music supervisor, Nicholas Skilbeck; orchestrations, Jonathan Tunick with Josh Clayton; music director, Nigel Lilley; lighting, Paule Constable; sound, Paul Groothuis.

Cast: Julie Armstrong, Norma Atallah, Josephine Barstow, Jeremy Batt, Tracie Bennett, Di Botcher, Billy Boyle, Janie Dee, Anoushka Eaton, Liz Ewing, Geraldine Fitzgerald, Peter Forbes, Emily Goodenough, Bruce Graham, Adrian Grove, Fred Haig, Aimee Hodnett, Dawn Hope, Liz Izen, Alison Langer, Emily Langham, Sarah-Marie Maxwell, Ian McLarnon, Leisha Mollyneaux, Gemma Page, Kate Parr, Philip Quast, Edwin Ray, Gary Raymond, Adam Rhys-Charles, Jordan Shaw, Imelda Staunton, Zizi Strallen, Barnaby Thompson, Christine Tucker, Michael Vinsen, Alex Young.

More Legit

  • Mrs. Doubtfire BroadwayCon panel

    Listen: 'Mrs. Doubtfire' the Musical, Live From BroadwayCon

    In the Broadway-bound musical version of “Mrs. Doubtfire,” actor Rob McClure has the unenviable job of following in the footsteps of comedy great Robin Williams, who memorably played the title role in the 1993 film on which the stage show is based. Listen to this week’s podcast below: How does McClure hope to fill those [...]

  • Grand Horizons review

    'Grand Horizons': Theater Review

    Don’t stop me if you’ve heard this one, as you surely must have: A nice, all-American family is in the process of breaking up and trying to make this sad state of affairs seem funny in Bess Wohl’s Broadway outing “Grand Horizons.” After 50 years of marriage, Nancy (the ever-elegant Jane Alexander) and Bill (the [...]

  • Uncle Vanya review

    'Uncle Vanya': Theater Review

    Director Ian Rickson has had success with Chekhov in the past. His exquisitely balanced, tragicomic production of “The Seagull” (2007 in London, 2008 on Broadway) was well-nigh flawless with, among others, Kristin Scott Thomas as painfully vulnerable as she was startlingly funny. Sadly, with his production of “Uncle Vanya,” despite felicities in the casting, lightning [...]

  • The Welkin review

    'The Welkin': Theater Review

    A life hanging perilously in the balance of charged-up, polarized opinions: This courtroom drama could easily have been titled “Twelve Angry Women.” But playwright Lucy Kirkwood (“Chimerica,” “The Children”) is far too strong and imaginative a writer for so hand-me-down a cliché. Instead she opts for “The Welkin,” an old English term for the vault [...]

  • Tina Fey attends the "Mean Girls"

    Tina Fey Announces Movie Adaptation of Broadway's 'Mean Girls' Musical

    It’s good to be mean…the “Mean Girls” musical, that is. Producers of the hit Broadway show announced today that the Tony-nominated production is being adapted for the big screen for Paramount Pictures. The musical is based on the 2004 movie of the same name. “I’m very excited to bring ‘Mean Girls’ back to the big screen,’ Tina Fey, [...]

  • Freestyle Love Supreme

    Watch Lin-Manuel Miranda and 'Freestyle Love Supreme' in Exclusive Clip From Sundance Documentary

    Before turning “Hamilton” and “In the Heights” into musical phenomenons, Lin-Manuel Miranda could have been found on stage, spouting off-the-cuff rhymes with his improv group, “Freestyle Love Supreme.” After performing across the globe, the troupe — founded 15 years ago by Miranda, his frequent collaborator Thomas Kail and emcee Anthony Veneziale — made its Broadway [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content