Welcome to Weismann’s Follies. Dmitri Weismann himself presides and the old gang of gorgeous gals are back for one last reunion in the theatre where they showed a leg and sang their hearts out between the wars, before it’s pulled down. It’s time to reminisce (cue for a song-list of glorious pastiches) and take stock of the ravages of the years – physical and emotional. So it’s equally the cue for a range of mould-breaking Sondheim numbers that excavate the regrets and neuroses eating away at the two couples centre-stage, former showgirls Sally and Phyllis and the stage-door johnnies, Buddy and Benjamin, whom they married. The genius of Sondheim and book-writer James Goldman is to intertwine and meld these two strands, building to a climax of ‘follies’ point numbers which become the expression of all that angst and heartache, one for each of the four, surprising, distinctive, appropriate and devastatingly revealing. The haunting of all the returnees by their younger selves, the girls in their gorgeous costumes and their stage door johnnies, acting out the past and observing their future, is another stroke of genius, another layer to this rich, complex show.
Years of revision by the creators and their work with successive creative teams have polished this multi-faceted gem. Director Dominic Cooke and his NT team work their own collective magic to delight and ravish. Cooke and choreographer Bill Deamer move an extraordinarily talented cast effortlessly through Vicki Mortimer’s ghost of a theatre, shabby rows of red velvet seats and make-up mirrors perching among piles of rubble – demolition already in progress as surely as the demolition of those youthful hopes and dreams.
Imelda Staunton and Janie Dee are dream casting for Sally and Phyllis; powerfully supported by Philip Quast’s Benjamin and Peter Forbes’ Buddy, they are first among equals in this genuine ensemble. All the Follies’ girls’ delicious solos, equally homage and pastiche get pitch-perfect interpretations. Dame Josephine Barstow yearns gloriously as Viennese operetta star Heidi Schiller, Dawn Hope’s honey tones ask thrillingly ‘Who’s That Woman?’, backed by the ghostly chorus helping the returnees to recall their mirror routine. Di Botcher makes ‘Broadway Baby’ a ruefully self-deprecating private moment in her old dressing room and Tracie Bennett’s ‘I’m Still Here’ is genuinely the story of survivor Carlotta Campion’s life told to a couple of chorus boys at the reunion.
Staunton’s obsessive, neurotic Sally, heartbreaking and disturbed in ‘Losing My Mind’ and Dee’s acid, knowing Sally, scintillating in ‘The Story of Lucy and Jessie’ (rightly restored here), are outstanding, beautifully supported by Zizi Strallen and Alex Young, telling as their younger selves.
Nicholas Skilbeck supervises the sizeable orchestra (of whom we get only a ghostly glimpse rear stage – though perhaps that was the intention) through Jonathan Tunick’s orchestrations, always an integral, satisfying element of Sondheim’s sound. Unmissable.
By Judi Herman
Photos by Johan Persson
Follies runs until Wednesday 3 January 2018. 7.30pm, from Sep 2pm (Sat & various Tue/Wed only; check website for details). £20-£60. National Theatre, SE1 9PX. www.nationaltheatre.org.uk
Broadcast live in cinemas in the UK and internationally Saturday 18 November as part of NT Live.