The Right Girl

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It’s back, and it’s (even) better. The first time around, Dominic Cooke’s revival of Follies at the National Theatre was simultaneously thrilling, breathtaking, and slightly flawed. Cooke put together a text that is far closer to the 1971 original than the more recent, less-corrosive revised edition that formed the basis for the last three major US revivals, and his cast did a generally excellent job of capturing the odd, febrile tone of James Goldman‘s stylised dialogue. On the minus side, Bill Deamer’s choreography for the show’s biggest production number didn’t quite deliver, and while Imelda Staunton delivered a stunning acting performance, her singing voice was not an entirely happy match for her character’s music.

For this return engagement, Mr. Deamer’s choreography has been tweaked, Ms. Staunton’s role is one of several that have been recast, and Mr. Cooke has made a number of mostly small adjustments to his staging. This isn’t simply a by-the-numbers retread of the 2017 production; it’s a thorough overhaul, and the changes are (almost) all improvements. First time around, this was a splendid revival with a lot of caveats. This time, while there are still elements that Sondheim devotees will be arguing over for years, for my money it’s more or less a complete triumph.

The show is what it always was: a masterpiece, part showbiz extravaganza and part Pirandellean identity play, in which the middle-aged guests at a reunion party for former performers in a Ziegfeld Follies-esque Broadway revue are (literally) confronted by the ghosts of their former selves. It’s a strange cocktail of glitter and rage and regret in which the former showgirls, and particularly the two unhappily-married couples at the centre of the plot, become a lens through which we’re asked to examine the ways in which people deal – or don’t – with the gulf between their youthful aspirations and middle-aged reality, and (because that’s not bleak enough already) the whole thing is an extended theatrical metaphor for America’s postwar decline. And on top of all that, Stephen Sondheim‘s extraordinary score may very well turn out to be the crowning achievement of his extraordinary career. It’s a dazzling blend of 1970-contemporary Broadway and spot-on pastiche, and the show’s climactic sequence of musical numbers, which finds the four protagonists trapped inside a metaphorical Ziegfeld Follies production in which they each examine their individual failures via a period-pastiche musical performance, is as brilliant a piece of writing as anything in the American musical theatre canon.

It’s matched, finally, by a revival whose brilliance in this incarnation seems as effortless as it was laboured first time around. Cooke’s first masterstroke – last time too – was to stage the piece to make it clear that the ghosts haven’t arrived at the party – we have entered their space. The show takes place in the rubble of the derelict Weismann Theatre, which is about to be torn down; a ghostly showgirl gives the signal that sets the performance in motion, we see the past before we see the (1971) present, and the ghosts recognise their present-day selves before their present-day selves see them. The ghosts are in James Goldman’s book for the show, of course, but Cooke’s staging always deployed them (even) more than Goldman does, and Cooke deploys them even more here. We’re always aware, even watching minor supporting characters, of the simmering tension between the past and the present, and a (new) tableau in which some of the ghosts watch their present-day selves leaving the party is both moving and visually beautiful.

There’s still a remarkable set of performances in the supporting roles, too. As the aging Viennese soprano Heidi Schiller, Felicity Lott perhaps doesn’t quite have Josephine Barstow’s devastating intensity (Barstow will return to the production later in the run, and played the press night when Lott fell ill), but I doubt One More Kiss has ever been sung more gloriously than it is here, and Alison Langer’s Young Heidi is (still) sublime. Dawn Hope’s ‘Who’s That Woman?’ raises goosebumps, and Deamer has rechoreographed the number so that it’s now the showstopper it should have been first time around. No, it’s not the original Michael Bennett choreography, which was used in the original London production in 1987, and yes, I’d still prefer it if it was, but the version they’re doing now is a huge improvement over Deamer’s first pass at it. Tracie Bennett has found even more colours in her take on I’m Still Here, and – best of all – Claire Moore slams the last sixteen bars of Broadway Baby into the back of the house with the kind of force that could easily level the entire building.

The biggest difference, though, comes in the recasting of two of the four leads – that is, one-half of the two married couples at the centre of the plot (in case you’ve forgotten – and why have you? – Sally Durant and Phyllis Rogers danced together in the final season of the Weismann Follies in 1941, and were roommates. At the end of the season, Sally married Buddy Plummer and Phyllis married Ben Stone – but Sally had had a fling with Ben before he got engaged to Phyllis, and when her own marriage proved less than idyllic she spent the next thirty years pining for him, and has arrived at the reunion in the hope of winning him back). Peter Forbes is still a heartbreaking Buddy, a travelling salesman who loves Sally too much to leave her and knows he’d be happier if he did. Janie Dee’s Phyllis has – seemingly impossibly, because she was perfect the first time – grown in stature; she’s an arresting combination of heart and hauteur, ice and fire, sharp edges and raw nerves. Alexander Hanson replaces Philip Quast, and he doesn’t have Quast’s gravitas. Hanson’s Ben is a shallow charmer who has coasted to success on the back of a combination of bravado and a boyish smile, and knows it. This Ben’s descent into self-loathing is more sudden than it was with Quast in the role, and more shocking; there’s a desperation to Ben’s climactic breakdown that was slightly lacking in this production’s first incarnation, and the chaos sequence that takes us out of Ben’s Follies number and back into the final (spoken) scene works better – much better – with Hanson at the centre of it than it did in 2017. Hanson isn’t quite as wonderful a singer as Quast, but he’s more than good enough, and he’s giving a very fine performance.

The biggest difference, though, is Joanna Riding’s Sally. Imelda Staunton is an extraordinary actor whose singing voice was never quite right for this role. Riding, whose casting, I admit, did not particularly excite me, has all the voice she needs for this music, and she sings the role as beautifully as you’d expect (and – thank God – without taking any of the higher notes in her big duet with Hanson’s Ben down an octave). Her acting choices, though, are fascinating, and quite different from Staunton’s. Staunton offered an unhappy woman slowly descending into insanity. Riding’s Sally is a self-absorbed romantic who operates (far) more through her emotions than her intellect, and who seems to see herself as a character in one of the trashy romance novels she says she reads to pass the time – and when her illusions are abruptly shattered, her (quick) emotional collapse is ugly, and mesmerising to watch. Riding’s rendition of Losing My Mind, Sally’s pastiche number in the show’s climactic Follies sequence, is quite breathtaking, although (following Staunton’s lead), it’s a startlingly angry interpretation, and it’s staged as a scene in a period romantic drama rather than simply as a torch song. Like every song in the Loveland sequence, Losing My Mind was conceived as a song in which the singer performs a metaphorical representation of her folly, rather than as a scene in which the actor acts the character’s emotional disintegration. In the 1987 London production, Julia McKenzie gave us the former, and I think I stopped breathing during the four minutes or so it took for her to sing the song. In 2017, Imelda Staunton gave us the latter, and the first time I saw it it didn’t quite work for me, although I warmed to her choices a little more on subsequent viewings. Riding somehow manages both, although not quite in the manner suggested by the script: she sings it powerfully, easily encompassing the big notes in the final verse (those notes severely tested her predecessor in this production), and begins playing it as a scene in a romantic melodrama, sitting at a dressing-table in a glamorous art deco boudoir. As the song continues, Riding’s Sally appears to struggle to maintain the artifice of the performance, gradually sinking into a combination of fury, grief and despair; she pops pills in the final verse, stands trembling as she holds the final note, and on the last beat of the song she removes her wig – a gesture which seems to leave her pitifully naked (albeit fully-clothed). If you know the show, if you know how previous interpretations of this moment have worked, this staging sounds ham-fisted, overdone, and completely wrong-headed – but in Riding’s hands (and voice), it’s absolutely riveting and somehow absolutely right.

As for the rest – there are fine performances from the new quartet of actors playing the younger incarnations of the four principal characters (Harry Hepple, Ian McIntosh, Christine Tucker, and Gemma Sutton as, respectively, Young Buddy, Young Ben, Young Phyllis, and Young Sally). Vicki Mortimer’s derelict theatre set is still stunning, and one still wishes a little more money could have been thrown at the Loveland sets for the climactic recreation of a Follies show, because those sets really need to be a little more opulent than they are here – although it’s clear the National have pushed the boat out as far as they can on this production, and the costumes are (still) magnificent. For Joanna Riding, Sally’s hair and party dress have been tweaked, and the new design is a significant improvement over the costume Imelda Staunton wore. The band is still conducted by Nigel Lilley, and they’re still wonderful, and Paule Constable’s appropriately crepuscular lighting is still pretty much perfect.

There’s still no intermission, which for this show is as it should be, and Cooke directs his new cast to give, if anything, an even more electrifying account of Goldman’s archly theatrical dialogue than their predecessors did. Once again, Vicki Mortimer’s turntable set moves us seamlessly through the various different levels of the derelict Weismann Theatre, and once again – in fact, even more than last time – it’s obvious everybody involved understands this show’s rather unusual tone and rhythm (imagine a mid-century American Restoration drama with script revisions by Edward Albee and songs drawn from every corner of musical theatre’s golden age). There were always many, many good things in this production – but last time, there was a great deal to argue against as well. This time, Cooke and his creative team have given us as good a revival of Follies as I ever expect to see. It’s an intelligent, precise, thrilling presentation of rich, multi-layered material, possibly as good a musical production as the National has ever done and certainly as good as anything I’ve ever seen there. If you saw it last time, you need to see it again. In almost every way, this incarnation of the production is stronger, smarter, sharper, and deeper than the first. In terms of Sondheim revivals, this is just about as good as it gets.

And yes, that means it’s rather a pity that the first cast, rather than this one, got to preserve their performances via an NT Live presentation and a cast recording. That, I’m afraid, is showbiz.

 

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