Ned Hopkins | 24 Feb 2019 12:20pm
FOLLIES 2019 National Theatre (c) Johan Persson
What a difference a year makes! Dominic Cooke’s 2017 production of Follies was always very good, but subtle adjustments seem to have made it slicker and sharper. The recasting of two of the leads has created a stronger chemistry between the unhappy couples at the centre of the piece, making it more engaging and satisfying. Previously I’ve always found Sally, Phyllis, Ben and Buddy’s relentless self-absorption somewhat tiresome, but this revival makes me care about them.
Once more I was struck at how seamlessly the director and choreographer (the brilliant Bill Deamer) keep the show on its toes. In a piece which is constantly looking back as a way of trying to come to terms with the present, everywhere your eyes travel they alight on characters from the past weaving in and out of those from now – or 1971 to be precise, the year of original Broadway production.
We’re at an onstage reunion at the Weismann Theatre of ex-Ziegfeld type show folk thirty years after they last performed there. But wreckers have already begun demolishing the old venue to make way for a parking lot, and they’re obliged to reminisce amongst the dust and debris in the half-shattered auditorium, recalling past triumphs and liaisons and bitching a little – or maybe a lot. As the wine begins to flow old flames flicker, re-awakening unresolved emotional issues.
The stage is often used as a metaphor for life: the crumbling walls here reminding us of its ephemeral nature. Yet muscle memory can still help recreate the old routines, as demonstrated by the women in their show-stopping mirror song Who’s That Woman? ably led by Dawn Hope (Stella). As they chatter and struggle to remember the old steps, the once lissom showgirls are shadowed by the ghosts of their former selves in gossamer costumes and glittering headdresses who, when not directly a part of the scene, linger in the shadows or perch on a pile of rubble.
Ben effectively sums up one of the show’s main themes when he says “we make bargains with life” expanding this in his song The Road You Didn’t Take. We all have ‘Sliding Doors’ moments and in middle age, especially if life hasn’t lived up to our expectations, wonder if it’s not too late to roll the dice again.
Despite her glamour and material comforts, Phyllis has become embittered by her husband’s remoteness, hiding her feelings beneath her chic veneer and razor-sharp wit. For her old friend, the somewhat neurotic, conventional Sally – whose own partner Buddy, a travelling salesman, is cheating on her – the event brings back self-deluded feelings she has preserved in aspic for Ben.
Gorgeous Janie Dee, reprising the role of Phyllis – possibly the most clearly defined role of the four – hits the target with every barb she delivers, notably in the bitter Could I Leave You? and dances up a storm in her sassy production number The Story of Jessie and Lucy where she describes what are, effectively, her own alter egos.
Peter Forbes, like Dee, also from the 2017 cast, seems to have gained strength in the role of the apparently cheery-chappie, Buddy, fighting his own inner conflicts – explored in the pastiche vaudeville number Buddy’s Blues. His powerful singing voice is also an asset to the show.
Joanna Riding, known for her more assertive roles such as Babe Williams in The Pajama Game, makes Sally Durant Plummer completely her own and the best interpretation of the part I’ve seen since Julia McKenzie’s in the 1987 London production. Riding captures both Sally’s neuroses (it was touching the way she kept accusing herself of being fat when her frock was practically hanging off her trim frame) and pain. In a Harlow wig with mascara smudging her face, she wrings every tormented note from her ultimate torch song Losing My Mind: an electrifying interpretation.
Alex Hanson, the new Ben, gives the man enough debonair charm to mitigate the aloofness and brusqueness with which he tries to mask his insecurities. His devastating final routine Live, Laugh and Love backed by the entire chorus, when he suddenly goes into meltdown, brings the evening to a heart-stopping climax. Hanson always brings great humanity to every role he plays and, here, his considerable musicality. He unselfconsciously provides a lynchpin for the show.
As the youthful Ben, Phyllis, Buddy and Sally, the talented: Ian McIntosh, Christine Tucker, Harry Hepple and Gemma Sutton, provide a constant reminder of their younger selves – initially in the delightful Waiting Around for the Girls Upstairs before poignantly shadowing the people they have become.
But this is a company show, and the four principals are supported by some fine turns from other guests. In a beautifully blocked rendition of her paean to survival I’m Still Here, Tracie Bennett (Carlotta) starts by quietly sitting in a row of shabby tip-up seats chatting to friends, before rising and, as her listeners move off to circulate elsewhere, reflecting for a few moments before slowly taking over the stage as the tempo accelerates and voice and band build to a triumphant climax.
It’s also nice to see old faithfuls such as Billy Boyle and Myra Sands charm us with the deceptively tricky Rain on the Roof. And on Saturday afternoon, Caroline Fitzgerald stepped in from an indisposed Felicity Lott to make a good fist of the operetta duet One Last Kiss as Heidi, with Alison Langer in glorious voice as her younger self.
Mortimer’s costumes were obviously a labour of love, from the dazzling and detailed showgirl dresses to the camp whimsy of the faux Fragonard costumes for the chorus in the Loveland dream sequence – or is it a nightmare? The fussily upholstered and frilly frocks women wore for formal occasions fifty years ago are also beautifully re-created, whilst Mortimer shows her subtle sense of colour in the use of turquoise for linking reality and fantasy. The impressionistically recreated ruined playhouse makes the most of the Olivier’s often unforgiving stage, contrasting well with the flimsy cloths flown in for the show-within-a-show numbers.
Stir into the mix the superb musical direction (supervised by Nicholas Skilbeck) Paule Constable’s effective lighting and Paul Groothuis’ sound designs and you have a show that will be remembered as one of the most ambitious and best loved National Theatre productions of the decade.
FOLLIES 2019 Ian McIntosh (Young Ben), Joanna Riding (Sally) and Gemma Sutton (Young Sally) National Theatre (c) Johan Persson