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Stage Review: Doing justice to Sondheim

FOLLIES by Sondheim ; Directed by Dominic Cooke ; Designed by Vicki Mortimer ; Lighting Designer - Paule Constable, at the National Theatre, London, UK ; 2019 ; Credit : Johan Persson / - Credit: Archant

Follies, National Theatre, until April 6

When the National Theatre gets a production absolutely right – and let me say immediately that’s what it’s achieved with its revival of Stephen Sondheim’s Follies – it lifts you in a way that no other venue in the world can quite manage.

I have seen a few productions of this classic over the years and, when it’s done indifferently, the story by James Goldman is relegated to being no more than a linking device to a series of big numbers. When the director understands what it is he’s dealing with – as Dominic Cooke certainly does this time around – the story gives each of the songs an emotional charge. More than that, they don’t even seem like songs, but words intrinsic to the story that are delivered under acute emotional pressure.

The story is set in 1971 when the grand old Dimitri Weismann (Gary Raymond) has invited all of the chorus girls who performed at his soon-to-be demolished theatre to a reunion. So far from being a celebration of showbusiness, it soon becomes a forensic and unforgiving examination of its absurdities and the weaknesses of the human condition.

All of the women who turn up – sometimes with their other halves – have taken a few knocks in life. All are well past their sell-by-dates. As they attempt a few of their old routines, shadows of their former selves – young, sexy and beautiful – seem to mock them. Two couples stuck in unhappy marriages – Buddy and Sally (Peter Forbes and Joanna Riding) and Benjamin and Phyllis (Alexander Hanson and Janie Dee) – are at the very dark heart of it all and they have to somehow keep their acts together after years of lies and cheating and broken dreams.

It takes a lot to be able to communicate such brittle emotions on a set as lavish and enormous as that conjured by Vicki Mortimer, but the members of the cast somehow manage to pull it off, and, just for once in a big musical, the acting is every bit as accomplished as the singing. I was especially impressed by Hanson – every inch the ageing matinee idol but, underneath it all, desperately insecure and vulnerable. There is a poignant turn, too, from Jeremy Batt and Billy Boyle as a couple of ancient hoofers apparently oblivious to the humiliations of time.

There are so many great standards in this show – Broadway Baby, Losing My Mind and Could I Leave You? – but the one that always defines it for me is I’m Still Here. I’ve heard such grand dames such as Eartha Kitt and Elaine Stritch belt it out with great defiance as the song of an unapologetic survivor, but here the diminutive Tracie Bennett invests it with an almost unbearable poignancy by adding just a few notes of regret. The effect was spell-binding.

I have never seen a better production of Follies and came away from it with a spring in my step – and more respect than ever for Mr Sondheim.