Stephen Sondheim’s Follies has returned after a phenomenally successful run in 2017. Imelda Staunton may have gone but the production has retained all its glamour and the cast is certainly not lacking extraordinary talent after her departure.
Follies is a nostalgic and poignant exploration of disappointing relationships and a clash between youthful expectation and middle-aged regret, set at a party – a last hurrah for the ‘Weismann Girls’ of old – hosted by Weismann himself, owner of the now closed ‘Follies’ theatre. Ben and Phyllis attend the party, with Ben hotly pursued by Sally, whose husband (Buddy) follows her to the soirée, anticipating trouble. Each character has an actual shadow of their younger selves, played by other actors, following them and playing out the past – Ben and Sally’s love affair, Buddy’s jealousy and ultimately Sally’s lovesick disappointment – emotions that follow them to the present day and nudge their marriages towards a cliff edge.
The four main characters – Joanna Riding as Sally, Peter Forbes as Buddy, Alexander Hanson as Ben and Janie Dee as Phyllis – are consistently excellent, but the standout performances come from Tracie Bennett as Carlotta and Claire Moore as Hattie. Each with a smashing solo number, their characters add different dimensions to the paths that the Weismann Girls have taken and ensure the plot doesn’t become insularly focused around the emotional and turbulent relationships of the main pair of couples. Director Dominic Cooke and designer Vicki Mortimer have collaborated wonderfully to highlight the musical’s glitzy allure with exquisitely befeathered white and gold costumes that stand out against the crumbling wall emblazoned with ‘Follies’ and the dusty theatre seats in the background.
The piece’s only shortcoming, perhaps, is the degree to which it excels in creating such nuanced characters and gorgeously detailed scenes. The plot somehow loses its way in the exuberance of the musical as it sidelines to explore other characters and into numbers which showcase the ‘follies’ of each of the main characters which are to a certain extent clear already. There is nothing to drive the story forward since the first few scenes establish the messy relationships at play in both past and present, and Sally makes the same mistake of thinking that Ben is in love with her all over again. While there is a crucial warning here against becoming stuck in the past, it doesn’t aid the story.
Despite this, the cast is bursting with talent, complemented by a sumptuous design, and the production will leave you with stars in your eyes and humming a good few numbers.
- By Stephen Sondheim
- Directed by Dominic Cooke
- Book by James Goldman
- Cast includes: Joanna Riding, Peter Forbes, Alexander Hanson and Janie Dee
- National Theatre
- Until 11th May 2019
- Time: 19:30. Matinees: Wednesdays and Saturdays at 14:00.