Follies, The Olivier, National Theatre:
Stephen Sondheim’s musical, Follies revolves around a reunion in a crumbling Broadway theatre, scheduled for demolition, of the past performers of the “Weismann’s Follies”, a musical revue (based on the Ziegfeld Follies). This spectacular revival of Follies, directed by Dominic Cooke features a cast of 40 and a full orchestra.
When we reach a certain age and the invitations arrive for school/college/university reunions, I suspect that many of us run through an internal dialogue which covers the following:
- How exciting to see everyone again and have a catch-up. I can’t wait.
- Hold on, will I recognise them?
- Worse; will they recognise me? Do I look old/fat/grey?
- Will everyone be much more successful, richer, and happier than I am?
- Will my old flame be there?
These are exactly the emotions that Sally Durrant feels as Dimitri Weismann holds his last ever party to celebrate the Follies before the theatre is turned into a parking lot. It’s 1971, 30 years since Sally was a Follies girl. She arrives in a very excited state wearing an understated and rather suburban dress. As they arrive the other Follies girls from 1918 to 1941 chose different outfits of many styles; some elegant and classy, some verging on fancy dress, but all aimed at impressing each other.
Weismann states that he held a Follies show every year during the in-between war years, which puzzled me momentarily until I remembered that the USA entered the Second World War in 1941. We not only see the Follies as they are today, but we see the ‘ghosts’ from their youths, the young women and men who made up the Follies ensemble. Throughout the play, the ghosts sit the side, or stand behind, or sometimes they dance in tandem with their older selves. The stage was full of the glamour of diamanté, ostrich feathers and ever so slightly risqué dresses.This was a very clever technique which captured that feeling of longing to be young again. Perhaps the most moving example coming from 1918, the 1971 Heidi Schiller (played by Dame Felicity Lott) it is implied once loved Weismann. Both the older Heidi and the younger Heidi (played by Alison Langer) were amazing singers who were matched to perfection. It was no surprise to learn that both are notable opera singers.
Sally (played by Joanna Riding) sings a great number expressing all the nerves of meeting old colleagues and a particular gentleman from her past in “Don’t Look at Me”. It’s clear from the conversation with Ben (played by Alexander Hanson) that they were once more than just friends. As the alcohol flows and the evening progresses, their stories are told. Sally is clearly in awe of the sophistication of her former friend Phyllis (played by the wonderfully haughty and elegant Janie Dee), she says “I thought you must be royalty or Jackie Onassis”, although, to me, Phyllis’s costume looked more reminiscent of Katherine Hepburn.
We see the Follies girls having fun, recreating their entrance to the stage, and a number that they had all performed throughout the Follies years. In Mirror the use of the ‘ghosts’ adds another layer to the meaning of the song, as the older selves try to recreate what they once were.
As the story unfolds, and alcohol is consumed, we learn that not all is what it seems. One couple makes a living running a dance school, one Follies girl (Solange) sells perfume, another has made it to Hollywood (Carlotta) but has been through hardship. Her amazing rendition of “I’m still here” a part played by Tracie Bennett, was both vulnerable and powerful. In fact, Tracie was in the 2017 production and received an Olivier nomination for her acting.
Meanwhile, we learn of the past of Sally and Phyllis who danced and flat shared in New York in the 40s. We are introduced to Buddy (played wonderfully by Peter Forbes) and Ben. Their story unfolds starting from a simple ‘have you got a friend for my friend’ enquiry through to the shattering of the hopes and dreams of youth when futures looked bright and promising in Love Land. The four form into couples, Phyllis with Ben, and Sally and Buddy.
This play could easily turn into something very dark and over-wrought. But the directing brings out the humour in the lines, often brilliantly executed by the actors. The whole song “Could I leave you?” sang by Phyllis when Ben says he wants a divorce is full of passion, anger and humour. I especially loved the lines:
The pace is livened up by each of the four main characters ‘Follies’. We find that Buddy’s Folly is to be loved by someone that he doesn’t, whilst he still loves Sally. Sally’s folly is the most harrowing, we learn that she’s depressed and suicidal having never stopped loving Ben. As she sings “Losing My Mind” her final act of taking off her wig symbolises the fake life she’s been living. Phyllis’s folly is knowing that she’s become hard and ice-like. Whilst Ben’s is not realising that he has always been loved by Phyllis.
There was a nice nod to the ‘Me Too’ movement when Weissman tells a pretty waitress that in years gone-by she’d have been queuing to see him and the girls would do anything to be a Follies girl. This is summed up in the now classic song, “Broadway Baby” sang amazingly by Claire Moore. As Weissman walks away the waitress pulls a face and pulls her skirt further over her knees.
I loved Phyllis as a character the best. When she says that “I said that I wasn’t much. I was wrong. I was fabulous” it really struck a chord. How many of us don’t release how great we are until later in life and wish that we’d had that confidence much earlier? Having exorcised the ghosts of their pasts the two couples depart the Follies reunion; they’ll have to find out how to carry on in the present. All the seats at in the Olivier Theatre are comfortable with good leg room. However, 2 hours and 15 minutes without an interval is quite a lot to ask of an audience. Apparently true to the spirit of how Sondheim intended the piece to be performed, I’d personally have appreciated a break ( perhaps after “I’m Still Here”).
Despite that, Follies is highly recommended. Book your tickets now!
Book by James Goldman. Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim.
Follies is showing at the National Theatre until 11th May.
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