Tuesday, 19 September 2017
Follies at The Olivier
Musicals aren’t really my thing, but anything starring Imelda Staunton gets my vote, so I did book to see Follies at The Olivier. And I’m so glad I did because this production, directed by Dominic Cook, is captivating.
Follies, with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by James Goldman is set in 1971 and is a tribute to the glamorous Broadway shows of yore when the beautiful chorus girls danced, sang and strutted their stuff in outrageous plumed costumes. Luckily, however, this production doesn’t wallow in nostalgia. Vicky Mortimer’s design mingles the theatre’s latter-day opulence with its present deterioration. It is to be demolished and the dismantling process has already begun, with piles of theatrical paraphernalia littering one side of the stage. The former Weismann Follies (based on the real-life Ziegfeld Follies) who are gathered together for one last party before the bulldozers hit, also hit home that the glitz and glamour is only skin deep. They have aged and have regrets and problems just like everyone else. And the fact that each main character has their younger self stalking them in the shadows highlights this even more.
The show mainly follows two couples. Phyllis and Ben are rich, successful, but childless New Yorkers who constantly bicker. Neither one of them are happy. Unhappiness is also the default setting for their long-time friends, Buddy and Sally, who now live the quiet life in Phoenix. Imelda Staunton (stunning as always) is Sally, excitedly nervous, not just at being back in the theatre, but also at being in the same space as the man she has yearned for ever since she was part of the chorus line, namely Ben. It seems she’s been waiting for this moment. The moment when she can rekindle the love for the man who is everything her husband is not.
It needs brilliant performers to do justice to these four complex characters and this production has succeeded in getting just that. Top of the tree is the incomparable Imelda Staunton with her multi-layered depiction of the delusional Sally. Her fixed smiles and nervous energy almost imperceptibly morph into downright misery and her rendition of Losing My Mind is a master class in showing just what the title means. Here is an actress who not only has the capability to emote in song or speech but can singlehandedly fill the largest space despite her tiny frame.
Another cast member who excellently portrays his hidden desolation is Philip Quast as Ben. He is blessed with a beautiful singing voice, but in his final song, Live, Laugh, Love, he goes to pieces so convincingly that one is unsure as to whether it is he, the actor who is really disintegrating.
Jamie Dee’s Phyllis is also excellent. Elegant and poised to within an inch of her life, her timing is spot on, making her rendition of Could I Leave You, caustically hilarious. Her high kicks aren’t half bad either.
It’s a real treat to see a troop of actresses of a certain age still belting out some of Sondheim’s biggest hits and dancing with the verve of women half their age. I defy anyone to perform Broadway Baby or I’m Still Here better than Di Botcher or Tracie Bennett respectively and following the National’s recent couple of misses, Dominic Cook has hit gold with his 135 minutes worth of pure joy.