Directors: Dominic Cooke (stage), Tim Van Someren (film)
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim / Book by James Goldman
Runtime: 152 mins.
Australian Release Date: 17 February 2018
Previewed at: Dendy Newtown, Sydney, on 7 February 2018.
Follies is the latest production from the National Theatre Live and is another feather in the cap for the successful on-going program of live theatre brought to Australia, and the world, on the big screen. Directed by Dominic Cooke from the book by James Goldman, and with music and lyrics by the great Stephen Sondheim (known for such wonderful musicals as A Little Night Music, Sweeney Todd, Company and Sunday in the Park with George), this production is not to be missed.
Set in 1971, the year it was first produced, some 30 years after the curtain came down on the fictitious Weismann ‘Follies’ (based on the original Ziegfeld ‘Follies’), the cast gathers at New York’s Weismann Theatre to reminisce and celebrate their by-gone heyday because the theatre is soon to be demolished. It’s the first time the ‘girls’ have been together since the curtain went down and there are a host of memories, regrets and ‘what ifs?’ to be gone over as they catch up one last time. They’re faced not only with their fading memories but the inevitable advance of middle-age and, for two couples in particular, the desire to perhaps make amends for earlier mistakes. Sally (Imelda Staunton) and Phyllis (Janie Dee) were showgirls at the same time in the Follies revue and they arrive at the reunion with their respective husbands Buddy (Peter Forbes) and Ben (Australia’s Philip Quast) in tow. The four were all mates when the girls were kicking up their heels but now they’re questioning the choices they made then and the solidity of their marriages. “Regrets, I’ve had a few…”
The drama of Follies is played out by a huge cast of 37 and a 21-piece orchestra, who are also on stage, and it’s been lauded by the British press and public, receiving rave reviews and regular standing ovations. It’s so popular that the West End season was extended until January 2018 and will be revived next year. Imelda Staunton, particularly, has been singled out as “unforgettable”, and she is. Playing Sally Durant, the tiny performer has a beautiful voice which is brilliantly exhibited in her rendition of Losing My Mind, the musical’s torch song, which sends a shiver down your spine. It’s a classic number that has been performed by a wide range of singers including Liza Minelli, Barbara Cook and Bernadette Peters, to name a few, and Staunton’s rendition is up there with the best. The actress seems to have hit a purple patch recently; while consistently first-rate, she has excelled of late in the National’s Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf and the forthcoming movie Finding Your Feet. In Follies she is ably supported by Philip Quast as her unrequited love, Janie Dee as her old friend who’s suffering feelings of disillusion and abandonment and Peter Forbes as her philandering husband. The brilliant revolving set (a credit to Vicki Mortimer’s Production Design) is crucial to the unfolding of the multi-layered plot, as is the dramatic structure featuring ‘ghost’ versions of the leads enacting their back story.
In a pre-show interview, Sondheim maintains that the first couple of numbers in a new musical are the easiest to write but it gets increasingly difficult after that. His great skill, however, is being “a dramatist, not just a composer”, as Philip Quast puts it. In this instance, he’s created a slow-burn plot that takes a while to grasp but, once it kicks in, is highly satisfying and the characters’ despair, broken promises and deception are brought to the fore by the fine lyrics. The 10-camera shoot covers the stage well, creating “a new cultural phenomenon” (Quast again), a hybrid that is unique, neither film nor play. As always with the National Theatre Live screenings, this is a limited season so make a note in your diary to catch Follies and revel in one of the great Broadway musicals brought to Australia via London’s West End.