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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Follies
Olivier Theatre  Autumn 2017

This beautiful, sensitive and evocative revival of Stephen Sondheim's 1971 musical is both delight-filled and insightful, and comes closer than I would have thought possible to conquering what in previous productions had seemed insurmountable flaws in the text. 

I'll get to the problems later. Let's begin with what is so good here. 

James Goldman's book depicts an imagined decades-later reunion of showgirls from a Ziegfeld Follies-type show. We focus on two of the ex-chorus girls and the Stage Door Johnnies they married, with all four beginning to wonder if they paired off in the wrong combinations way back then. 

And one of the big strengths of this Follies is that director Dominic Cooke has led his cast to a much deeper exploration and understanding of their characters than I've seen in any previous version, making what could have played as soap opera really matter. 

Imelda Staunton mines all the pathos and desperation in mousy last-chance-at-happiness Sally, adding to her recent string of musical triumphs (Sweeney Todd, Gypsy) and, no doubt, to her collection of Best Musical Performance awards at year's end. 

Philip Quast as Ben and Peter Forbes as Buddy find colours and depths to the husbands I'd never seen before, and only Janie Dee, despite singing and dancing with energy and style, disappoints a bit by missing the extreme brittleness and rage in Phyllis. 

The musical's reunion premise allows for what amount to a string of guest-star cameos, as one after another veteran steps out of the background to tell her story. 

The result is one big show-stopping number after another, from Tracie Bennett's take-no-prisoners I'm Still Here, through the more laid-back and seemingly effortless Ah Paree of Geraldine Fitzgerald and Di Botcher's Broadway Baby, to the exquisite One More Kiss from opera's Dame Josephine Barstow. 

That list of titles reminds us that there is so much else going on in the show that you might not notice that the score is one of Sondheim's best. 

Could I Leave You is one of the angriest songs ever heard on a Broadway stage, and Losing My Mind one of the most heartbreaking., while every female singer of a certain age has reason to bless Sondheim for Broadway Baby and I'm Still Here, without which their repertoires would be much barer. 

Even a throwaway number like Waiting For The Girls Upstairs has a lovely melody, and Sondheim's mentor Oscar Hammerstein could envy the psychological and emotional depth of The Road You Didn't Take and Too Many Mornings. 

Building on (but not slavishly imitating) Hal Prince's 1971 staging, director Cooke and choreographer Bill Deamer fill the stage not only with the reuniting veteran showgirls but with the ghosts of their younger selves.

This creates moments of breathtaking beauty, as when a couple of ageing dancers fake their way through an old routine while their ghosts do a more flamboyant version behind them. 

The theatrical magic is overwhelming in Who's That Woman, as the older singer-dancers gradually yield the stage to their younger selves and then join with them in a blend of the real and the ideal. 

And now the problems which, as was to become almost a tradition in Sondheim shows, lie in the second act (though the show is here being done in a continuous two-and-a-quarter-hours without interval). 

Having established the situation of the two unhappy couples, Goldman and Sondheim seem unable to find a way out of it, and every production of the show since 1971 has tinkered with the book and song list, trying to make the resolution clearer. 

Dominic Cooke here goes back to the original 1971 version, which imagines the central quartet's unhappiness being resolved through a climactic fantasy sequence in which they each get to express their frustrations openly and somehow cathartically move past them to be able to get on with life. 

But I've just made that sound a whole lot clearer than it is in performance, and what we actually see is a big eleven o'clock song for each of them, another string of self-contained showstoppers of varying relevance and quality – Losing My Mind is a great song, Buddy's Blues is not – followed by a rushed ending. 

It is a credit to the four leads and their director that we take it on faith that the Loveland sequence somehow resolved things for their characters even though we didn't see how. 

So Follies has flaws, and they are probably insurmountable. But if the whole doesn't quite work, so many of the pieces do that this best-version-so-far is heartily recommended.

Gerald Berkowitz

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