WORTH A LOOK?: *****
WHERE: National Theatre
WHEN: 26/8, press night 6/9 runs to 3/1/2018
Four-time Olivier Award winner Imelda Staunton last won for her starring role in Stephen Sondheim’s Gypsy but plays a very different part here.
- Read on for reasons including why this version of Follies is the one to see
Staunton plays Sally Durant Plummer here, a mother-of-two unhappy with her marriage and still in love with her husband’s best friend who rejected her 30 years ago.
Sally has the show’s best known song (Losing My Mind, much more understated than the Pet Shop Boys version Liza Minnelli had a hit with in the 80s) and Staunton’s performance is similarly pitched which means she doesn’t dominate this revival as she couldn’t fail to do in Gypsy.
Follies is set in 1971 and is about the reunion of showgirls from the Weismann Follies shows, which are loosely based on the Ziegfeld Follies variety shows which were a feature of America’s history.
It’s 30 years since Sally last saw Ben and her then best friend and fellow showgirl Phyllis who went on to marry. Sally’s here with her estranged husband Buddy and the show, which Sondheim called ‘plotless’ at a Q&A this week, is about those two relationships.
Philip Quast, also an Olivier winner, plays Ben and it’s a commanding performance of a man who’s found success charming others but doubts the value of what he does.
Janie Dee, another Olivier winner, is his devoted wife Phyllis who’s tiring of his lack of commitment to their marriage and annoyed by Sally’s persistence in pursuing Ben. Dee’s is a terrific athletic performance with a great song-and-dance number never before seen in London.
At 130 minutes without interval, this revival of Follies builds and builds from one showstopping number to another. Special mention to Di Botcher who epitomises the best of showbusiness in Broadway Baby.
In the starriest of casts, fellow Olivier winner Tracie Bennett plays showgirl Carlotta who wins the most audience affection for song I’m Still Here, which Sondheim memorably described as chronicling the career of Joan Crawford.
The most clever thing about the show is how each cast member is shadowed by a younger version of themselves and this means young and old can interact.
This works best during number Mirror, Mirror when the older showgirls try to recreate one of their old routines and are joined by their younger selves.
It’s a show about the joy/peril of reminiscing but also the importance of using past experience to inform future behaviour. The theatrical setting means it will play especially well with that crowd.
At 97 performances, 37 cast members, 21 musicians, 160 costumes and 200 production staff and apprentices, we doubt you’ll see a more opulent version of Follies than this.
Director Dominic Cooke (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom) has attracted a more talented cast to this that we can’t imagine ever being bettered. When Staunton is not the best but one of a number of many magnificent things about a show, you know it’s don’t-miss and must-see.