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Stage Review: Follies at the National Theatre

This is a sumptuous revival of Stephen Sondheim and James Goldman’s 1971 homage to departed American musical theatre, says Martin McQuillan

After the success of La La Land a canny producer at the National has decided to bring back the original musical of unhappy endings to create a theatrical blockbuster, a glorious hit that can be screened and toured around the country. This production does not disappoint; it’s magnificent.

If much ink has been spilt recently over the paucity of parts for older women on stage and screen, this is a problem Sondheim knew well, over 40 years ago. He crafts more three-dimensional women on the verge of a nervous breakdown than Pedro Almodóvar could shake a libretto at.

The basis of the musical is a reunion of showgirls who once appeared at Weismann’s Follies in New York. The girls assemble, accompanied by the baggage of spouses and emotional history. Two generations appear on stage simultaneously, the characters as they are now and as they were in their pre-war heyday. Initially young and old keep a ghostly distance; as the story unfolds the streams cross and the generations combine in song. As a theatrical device it remains remarkably fresh, enabled by a triumph of choreography and set-design.

Against this backdrop the four leads play out their pathologies, folly in English derives from the French word for madness. Sally (Imelda Staunton) loves dead-inside politician Ben (Philip Quast) but is married to his once best friend Buddy (Peter Forbes) who is distracted by a mistress. Ben is married to Phyllis (the wonderful Janie Dee), Sally’s old flatmate, who sleeps with younger men and counts the value of the silverware in her dining room. Their marriages are follies, both youthful errors and old ruins. This being Sondheim, after an hour we are stiletto-deep in spilt booze and regret.

The four leads all deliver strong performances in a musical where the oldies have all the fun. Their family romance is interspersed with songs from the Weismann girls reflecting on their lives. Each one is better than the last in a series of show-stopping arias. From Di Botcher tearing it up with Broadway Baby to Tracie Bennett’s unforgettable I’m Still Here, a hymn to surviving the pills, the pain and the husbands.

The young cast are very fine as well, looking on aghast at what their older selves have become. Armed with the surety and ignorance of youth they hover over which path to choose. It’s like a camp, musical version of Sliding Doors, for pensioners, but only good.

Will this reunion end in separation? It ain’t over until the mature lady sings. Sondheim is one of the few geniuses who can make you despair about the prospect of tomorrow and yet give you a reason to carry on.

NT Live will broadcast Follies to cinemas in the UK and internationally on Thursday November 16. Go get a ticket, trade your youth for it.