FIVE REVIEWS FOR THE PRICE OF ONE!!!!!

Yes, five: the UK tour of Lincoln Center’s revival of The King and I in Manchester, Fiddler on the Roof, the last night of the National Theatre revival of Follies, and The Play That Goes Wrong in London, and Sweeney Todd in Liverpool. All seen around the middle of May – but the rest of May and most of June have passed by in a blur, and here we are. So, a quick catch-up – capsule reviews, bullet points, all in one post. Normal service will be resumed as soon as I find a reasonable definition of ‘normal’.

THE KING AND I

* Gorgeous set and costumes.
* Pacing sometimes glacially slow.
* Superb performance from Jose Llana as the King.
* Competent performance from Annalene Beechey as Mrs. Anna. Never bad, but also never interesting.
* Cezerah Bonner’s Lady Thiang is the best thing in the show, and her ‘Something Wonderful’ is thrilling.
* Out of kindness, I won’t name the actors who played Lun Tha and Tuptim. Screech-o-rama.
* At these prices – a bit lower than the West End, but only a bit – and in a theatre this size, it’s taking the piss to have just fourteen musicians in the pit.
* The member of the front-of-house staff who rolled the very noisy shutters on the stalls bar (actually in the auditorium) up and then down again during the overture has no business working in a theatre.
* These days, the show’s colonialist point of view looks – let’s be kind – rather patronising.
* The score is marvellous, but this is, I’m afraid, my least favourite of the big Rodgers and Hammerstein shows, and this revival didn’t change my mind.

FIDDLER ON THE ROOF

* A Menier production, booted into the West End – but this time, they’ve done a reasonable job of taking something tiny and building it up.
* They’ve built the set out into the Playhouse’s proscenium, with a runway through the stalls on which actors enter and exit. It pulls you right into the village, and you do, in the stalls at least, have a sense of the show happening all around you.
* Whoever designed the new layout for the seats in the stalls didn’t bother to take into account the fact that people have knees. Ouch.
* Andy Nyman’s Tevye warm, real, moving. Particularly enjoyed the way the deedle-deedle-dums in If I Were A Rich Man became sighs as he washed himself at the village pump.
* Judy Kuhn is vocally massively over-qualified for the role of Golde; it goes without saying that her singing is flawless, but it’s a wonderfully spare, austere acting performance. She’s remarkable.
* Too bad you missed her, she was replaced by Maria Friedman a couple of weeks ago.
* Decent turns in all the supporting roles, too.
* While it’s beautifully acted and designed, director Trevor Nunn doesn’t manage to tap into the piece’s contemporary relevance in the way that, for example, Gemma Bodinetz did in her (even smaller) revival at the Everyman in Liverpool a couple of years ago.
* Selling Anatevka-themed cocktails in the bar before the show is remarkably crass, even by the standards of the Ambassador Theatre Group.

FOLLIES

* Yes I know I’ve written about this production before. I saw it six times. Deal with it.
* I’ve already said that this year’s return engagement was better in nearly every respect than the production’s first iteration in 2017. This final performance was as thrilling an evening as I’ve ever spent in a theatre.
* Thunderous applause as the ladies walked down the staircase in Beautiful Girls; I tend to find that kind of mid-show ovation easy to resist, but this time you couldn’t help get carried along with it.
* Thunderous applause, too – deservedly – for Claire Moore’s Broadway Baby, Tracie Bennett’s I’m Still Here, and Joanna Riding’s astonishing Losing My Mind.
* My God, Janie Dee. The most dazzling jewel in an evening that provides, as the song has it, ‘dazzling jewels by the score’. And she was clearly thoroughly moved by the audience’s response at the curtain call.
* Good as Felicity Lott was earlier in the run, it was wonderful to see Josephine Barstow’s heartbreaking, intense Heidi one last time, and she and Alison Langer gave a more-or-less definitive One More Kiss.
* This is a production Sondheim fans will be arguing over for years; for me, even though director Dominic Cooke made a few choices I wouldn’t have made myself, it stands as one of the National’s landmark achievements. It’s certainly as good as anything I’ve ever seen there.


THE PLAY THAT GOES WRONG

*A masterclass in how to take one joke – JUST one joke – and stretch it over two full acts.
* It’s not a long show, and it needs to lose fifteen minutes.
* At best, it’s very funny indeed. The second act is better than the first.
* I didn’t see the original cast, but I can’t imagine them being any better than the current one.

SWEENEY TODD

* Possibly even more austere than the Everyman’s revival of Fiddler on the Roof a couple of years ago.
* Set in the present, and definitely an austerity-era Sweeney Todd. This is a startlingly angry production, and the piece’s statement about social (in)justice has possibly never been clearer than it is here.
* It’s in the round and in your face; there’s very little set apart from a few chairs, the turntable stage is moved by the cast, and the costumes are straight out of Primark. And it works.
* It’s not – by far – the best-sung Sweeney Todd you’ve ever seen, although Liam Tobin’s Sweeney and Kacey Ainsworth’s hard-as-nails Mrs. Lovett are stronger singers than most of the supporting players.
* Kacey Ainsworth’s Mrs. Lovett is extraordinary – yes, she sacrifices some of the role’s laughs, but it doesn’t matter: she’s utterly terrifying, a backstreet capitalist who will do literally anything to get ahead, and she’s this production’s driving force.
* In such a small production – there’s a cast of just nine – I’ve no issue with there being just four musicians in the band. Tarek Merchant’s arrangements, though, are ham-fisted and not particularly subtle, and there are places – many places – where different choices might have resulted in less of the score’s musical texture being lost.
* And that’s the issue with this production: there’s brilliant work from director Nick Bagnall, from the designers, and from the cast – but it’s a musical, and while I understand the production has limited resources to play with, there’s only so far you can strip back the instrumentation before you start diminishing the piece’s richness. Here, that line is crossed far too frequently, and it needn’t have been, even with just four musicians.

So… there. All caught up. Four musicals, one play, one blog post. As I said, normal service will be resumed… sometime.

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.

 

Dazzling jewels by the score

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Yes, I went back.

It’s still breathtaking, I still have some reservations about some specific choices, and some elements made a little more sense the second time around. So… random thoughts, because it’s been a long week and I’ve written about this production already.

  • Follies is an incredibly complex piece, and there is never going to be an absolutely perfect production of it. On second (live) viewing (I saw the NT Live screening too), this comes as close as anyone is likely to manage these days – provided you’re willing to go with Dominic Cooke’s choices.
  • The single greatest achievement of Cooke’s staging is that he appears to understand the rhythm of the piece, and therefore stages the show as a constant tapestry of action taking place all over the derelict Weismann Theatre rather than as a succession of scenes taking place on the Weismann Theatre’s stage.
  • The character work, right across the cast, is enormously detailed, even though the script basically gives us a parade of archetypes. That was true at the last-but-one preview, and the performances have only got stronger since then. Every single detail, even those that go against the way this material has been played in earlier productions, can be justified by the text, and every single actor is listening. That doesn’t happen as often as it should when everybody’s a few months into a run.
  • Imelda Staunton’s Sally is possibly (even) more startling now than it was the first time. Her Sally is no simpering, deluded romantic. She’s full of resentment, she drinks, and she’s fuelled by her barely-suppressed rage – but based on information we’re given in (this version of) the book, it’s a plausible interpretation. This Sally could very believably get on a plane and fly a few hundred miles to pick a fight with her children.
  • I’m still not won over by this production’s staging of Losing My Mind, but I was somehow far more moved by the moment this time than I was back in September. That might be because this time I was sitting close enough to see the whites of Ms. Staunton’s eyes, rather than halfway back in the circle, or it might just be because I wasn’t seeing it for the first time. I still think the song (and the character) really demands a lusher singing voice, and that the moment works better when the song is performed rather than acted, but when you cast a Sally whose singing voice isn’t up to doing the heavy lifting in this number there are inevitably going to be compromises.
  • Sally’s dress in the book scenes is blue. It looked blue from the circle, it looked blue from the front stalls… but somehow it looked a bit more teal-ish in the NT Live screening.
  • Philip Quast’s breakdown at the end of his big Loveland number is better now – much better – than it was in September. Other people have made larger acting choices in that moment, but Quast’s Ben appears to deflate before your eyes.
  • At some point before the NT Live screening last month, the two men playing “Margie” and “Sally” in Buddy’s Blues were replaced by women. It makes all the difference, the song now plays like gangbusters, and Peter Forbes is giving a very, very fine performance which has been somewhat overlooked by some critics in their rush to praise everyone else.
  • Tracie Bennett’s I’m Still Here is now simultaneously darker and more celebratory than it was the first time around, and it’s still an extraordinary performance. The prominent positioning of Young Carlotta watching the song from the side of the stage isn’t in the stage directions, but (still) works beautifully; this Carlotta appears to fling the final verse of the song at her ghost, and Young Carlotta stands, I think in admiration, during that final verse. Carlotta is the show’s survivor – the character who has somehow managed to break free of her past. I’ve never seen that come across more strongly than it does in this production.
  • The dialogue exchanges between Janie Dee’s Phyllis and Quast’s Ben are even more electrifying now than they were in September. This time, I was sitting in the front row; my phone was in my pocket, and I swear they recharged it.
  • Zizi Strallen and Alex Young (respectively Young Phyllis and Young Sally) are both superb. The actors in these roles are often overlooked, and they shouldn’t be.
  • Somewhere on Youtube, there’s a clip of Blythe Danner doing The Story of Lucy and Jessie in the 2001 Broadway revival. It will give you new appreciation for Janie Dee.
  • And speaking of Janie Dee and Lucy and Jessie, this time I really liked the inclusion of Zizi Strallen’s Young Phyllis in the number. Phyllis’s folly – her big problem – is the great big yawning chasm between who she was when she was in the Follies and the brittle sophisticate she’s moulded herself into. Of course it makes sense to put her younger self alongside her in her Follies number – and Dee and Strallen are sensational.
  • The Loveland drops don’t look as flimsy from the front stalls as they did from the circle.
  • Sitting a few feet from Josephine Barstow as she sang One More Kiss seemingly right at me was as transfixing an experience as I’ve ever had in a theatre. I saw the show on Wednesday afternoon and it’s now Saturday night, and I still have goosebumps.
  • I still don’t love Bill Deamer’s choreography for Who’s That Woman, and I particularly don’t love the part where the older women leave the stage and are ‘replaced’ by their ghosts – even though it makes sense in terms of the way this production uses the ghosts. There’s no faulting Dawn Hope’s performance, and the number still stops the show, but we’ve all seen Michael Bennett’s original choreography (other productions have used it and there’s footage on Youtube), and this just isn’t as effective.
  • The final scene is heartbreaking – not cheap, manipulative, let-us-all-now-shed-a-tear-for-these-people heartbreaking, but quite deeply moving, again in a way that it wasn’t in September (I mean, I found it moving the first time, but not that moving).

I thought the first time I saw it that this production would make fans of the show argue – and it has, and there are people who have loathed it. I think that possibly says something about the material: this show says something quite unpalatable about age and regret, and there are a lot of things in it that can justifiably be given more than one interpretation. Dominic Cooke makes a succession of very definite choices, and has his actors commit fully to the heightened, far-from-naturalistic tone of James Goldman’s dialogue. I found that choice enormously effective, but it’s a choice you’ll either buy or you won’t. For me, while I (still) don’t think everything about this production is perfect, I suspect it’ll be a very long time, if ever, before I see another Follies that’s as in tune with my personal reading of the text as this one is… so it’s a good thing I’m going back a third time before it closes.

The mirror’s getting blurred

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Sally should have died the first time. Phyllis tells a drinks waiter he’s getting her all wet. Weismann hits on a waitress. There’s no interval, so slamming down a venti Americano before you take your seat probably isn’t a good idea unless you’re wearing Depends. We are, thank God, back in 1971 in more ways than one: for this production, the cut-down-and-smoothed-out revised version of James Goldman‘s book for Follies has been well and truly buried. May it never return.

Follies, more than most, is a show with a bumpy production history. The original Broadway production ran for more than 500 performances but lost a then-unheard-of $800,000. A 1987 London production had a completely rewritten book; it had a longer run but also lost money. There have been two Broadway revivals since 2000; they each used the watered-down rewrite of the book that has become the standard version, and neither was a hit. This is a show fans obsess over – yes, me too, I even wrote about it for part of my MA thesis. The score, underappreciated by critics in 1971, is an embarrassment of riches; Goldman’s original book, though, is probably too bleak ever to be a long-running commercial success. Set at a reunion of former showgirls in a now-defunct Ziegfeld Follies-style extravaganza, the show ostensibly focuses on the unhappy marriages of two ex-chorines, Sally and Phyllis, and their less-than-completely-faithful husbands, (respectively) oil rig salesman Buddy and politician/businessman Ben. On one level, the slender plot is simple: Sally and Phyllis danced together in the final season of the Weismann Follies in 1941, and were roommates. Sally married Buddy, Phyllis married Ben – but Sally and Ben had a fling before their engagements, and Sally arrives at the reunion having spent the past thirty years pining for what might have been. Actually, it’s about far more than that: during the reunion, the show’s characters are confronted by their younger selves, dredging up questions of memory and identity that locate the book in a surreal no-man’s-land between Pinter and Pirandello, with a hefty dollop of Fellini thrown in and a sprinkling of Albee on top. And on top of THAT, the whole thing is a metaphor for America’s postwar decline. It’s wonderful (if you don’t get one of the various watered-down rewrites), and I love it, but if you just want tap-dancing chorus girls you’re better off at 42nd Street.

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God knows what the National had to do in order to persuade James Goldman’s widow to allow them to use the not-watered-down bleak-but-brilliant original book, but we can all be very glad they did: Dominic Cooke’s production more than does it justice, although it isn’t without flaws. This isn’t quite precisely the unadulterated original text; there have been a few interesting tweaks here and there, and they’re all intelligent choices – although none of them amount to life-or-death changes. In the dumbed-down rewrite that has become the standard published text, there are a couple of crossovers in the final scene – minor characters leaving the party, given a couple of lines each. Those are inserted earlier in the show, before the surreal Follies-as-metaphor Loveland sequence, and it’s perhaps useful, by that point in the show, to emphasise the lateness of the hour as the four central characters succumb to a combination of alcohol, obsession, and spectacular self-loathing. Cooke keeps the “ghosts” onstage far more than the stage directions suggest; they’re almost always present somewhere, and all the party guests are mirrored/stalked/haunted by their own pasts. Accordingly, in the long opening sequence, the first fragment of song (as opposed to underscoring) comes from two of the ghosts: Young Ben and Young Buddy get a “hey up there/way up there/whaddya say up there?” (the opening phrase of ‘Waiting for the Girls Upstairs’, a song that arrives twenty minutes or so later) before anyone else has sung a word. ‘Bolero d’Amour’, on the other hand, has been cut, although it was apparently in the show during early previews (I saw the last-but-one preview before press night). And – purists will seethe, but this is London not New York and this choice makes sense – in ‘I’m Still Here’ Carlotta sings that she got through Shirley Temple rather than Brenda Frazier. I suppose they could have explained Brenda Frazier in a programme note, but who reads those?

(I do, actually, and in this case you should too: the programme includes fine, informative, well-written essays by David Benedict, Russell Jackson, and Gary Yershon, and a snippet of Ted Chapin’s wonderful book about the making of the original production. It’s well worth the £5.)

A big part of Cooke’s achievement here is that he understands the rhythm of the piece, and with Follies that is by no means always the case. Until the ‘Loveland’ show-within-a-show at the evening’s climax, Follies is structured as a continuous tapestry rather than as a succession of individual scenes, using a theatrical equivalent of cinematic crossfades – as one piece of the action ends, another begins somewhere else on the stage and your eye is drawn to it. Harold Prince’s original Broadway production achieved this effect using several moving platforms (there is some archival footage available); here, Cooke makes judicious use of the Olivier’s revolve (though not the drum) and Paule Constable’s perfectly-eerie lighting to keep the action spinning, and to shift focus between different areas of Vicki Mortimer’s desolate-but-beautiful derelict-backstage set.

He understands the rhythm of the dialogue as well, and that’s something that also appears to have eluded some directors. Goldman’s script starts out looking naturalistic, at least if you look past the ghosts, but it really isn’t. These are emblems rather than fully fleshed-out characters – remember, the whole show is a metaphor – and that’s a deliberate choice. The characters are simultaneously slightly larger-than-life and slightly less than three-dimensional, and there’s a surreal, arch theatricality to the dialogue that can feel painfully stilted if the actors don’t catch the correct rhythm. It’s somewhat reminiscent of Restoration comedy, only with a darker edge, and it requires the same kind of discipline and pace. Cooke makes it make perfect sense; in this production, the dialogue crackles with electricity and the pace never lets up. Dark as the material becomes, though, the delivery in this production stays just the right side of being too arch; there are laughs too – though not in the last ten to fifteen minutes – and they’re all present and correct, and again that isn’t an easy thing to achieve in material as ostensibly bleak as this.

And those ghosts are everywhere. There’s a ghostly entrance parade (way) upstage behind the older women during ‘Beautiful Girls’, the Whitmans dance with their younger selves in ‘Rain on the Roof’, Carlotta’s ghost looks down on her as she sings ‘I’m Still Here’. It sounds like embellishment, but it’s a choice that consistently pays off; everyone in this Follies is haunted by the past, but some are much better than others at facing it down.

Cooke also draws fine performances from his actors, right down to the smallest roles. Billy Boyle and Norma Atallah are absolutely charming as the Whitmans, and their ‘Rain on the Roof’ is a delight. Geraldine Fitzgerald is a drily funny Solange. Di Botcher cannily underplays ‘Broadway Baby’, so that a song that these days can seem like a cliché feels absolutely fresh. They get to do the trio ending combining their three numbers, and it’s a showstopper. Bruce Graham is a golden-voiced Roscoe, and Gary Raymond is a fascinatingly haunted/haunting Dmitri Weismann. As Stella Deems, Dawn Hope sings the hell out of ‘Who’s That Woman?’, the memorable tap number in which the ex-chorus girls literally dance with their younger selves.

The score is an embarrassment of riches, but so is this cast. As fading soprano Heidi Schiller, Josephine Barstow is simply beautiful. ‘One More Kiss’, a mock-Viennese waltz with a sting in the lyric, is the score’s loveliest song; as sung by Barstow and Alison Langer’s Young Heidi, it has possibly never been lovelier. Tracie Bennett’s Carlotta Campion – the show’s great survivor, a former Follies girl who became a film and television star – seems to be channeling (pre-breakdown) Judy Garland, but that’s a choice that works for the role, and that impression is probably reinforced by having seen Bennett’s powerhouse performance as Garland in Peter Quilter’s End of the Rainbow. Bennett’s Carlotta is strong, unsentimental, almost flinty – but at a certain point Bennett lets you see vulnerability too, and her I’m Still Here isn’t quite like any other performance of the song I’ve encountered. It starts as a reminiscence to friends, but then once she’s left alone onstage, halfway through the number, it becomes something darker and more complex: simultaneously a triumphant shout of survival and a more introspective acknowledgment of the emotional toll that comes with enduring adversity. It’s surprisingly moving, and an original, subtle take on a song that too often just gets steamrollered into the ground.

As for the central quartet and their younger counterparts, it’s mostly good news there too. Peter Forbes is an ideal Buddy – affable, ingratiating, sad around the edges. He isn’t a tap-dancer, but ‘The Right Girl’ is reconceived as an almost-adversarial dance duet with Fred Haig’s equally ideal Young Buddy, and it works very well indeed. Philip Quast brings tremendous gravitas to his portrayal of Ben, and in his hands ‘The Road You Didn’t Take’ – Sondheim’s baldest statement of the show’s overriding theme – is as affecting as it has ever been. And you’ll probably want to go home and erect some kind of shrine to Janie Dee’s Phyllis, because she’s perfect.

That leaves Imelda Staunton’s Sally, which is an impeccable performance in every way except one. Staunton does not fall into the trap of making Sally manic or bipolar from the top of the show. She very carefully charts a slow descent into madness, and it’s a very, very fine acting performance. Sondheim’s music, on the other hand, is not a good fit for her voice. She doesn’t commit the kind of crimes against the human eardrum perpetrated by Bernadette Peters on the most recent Broadway cast album, but Sally’s songs demand a soprano and she just isn’t one. That said, she more or less gets away with it: her ‘In Buddy’s Eyes’ is absolutely transfixing (and yes, she does hit all the notes, though I think it’s been taken down a step for her), because the acting performance is compelling enough to carry the music with it – and to be fair, she floats a lovely pianissimo whatever-it-is on the last note of the song. She takes the middle of ‘Too Many Mornings’ down an octave, but does hit the high notes at the end of the song. Her Loveland number, ‘Losing My Mind’, is less successful, but that’s partly because the staging is too busy: she sings a good part of the song in profile to the audience, sitting at a dressing table, and it would help if she was allowed to face the audience from the beginning.

Part of the problem, though, is undeniably the mismatch between the song and the performer. Staunton is a brilliant actor with a versatile voice that can encompass a wider range of musical roles than you might imagine – but she does not have the kind of glorious one-of-a-kind singing voice that could stand in the same league as some of her predecessors in the role. When Dorothy Collins, Barbara Cook or Julia McKenzie sang the song – and all three are/were superb actors too – their voices could do some of the heavy lifting. McKenzie literally just stood completely still then raised both arms on the penultimate line of the final verse; as careful as her acting choices in that moment were, she also has the kind of voice that makes an entire theatre stop breathing until she’s finished the number, and her physical stillness was a powerful statement in itself given that the song essentially spends four minutes describing a state of emotional paralysis. Staunton doesn’t have that kind of voice, so the song is given more elaborate blocking (in profile, face forward, pick up a glass and take a drink, stand for the final verse, yada yada) as if to compensate. The acting choices make perfect sense, and she (correctly) plays the performance pastiche rather than the nervous breakdown underpinning the song – but the song benefits enormously from a thrilling voice, and it doesn’t get one.

And having said all that, Staunton’s performance in the final scene is so heartbreaking that you’ll probably forgive her more or less anything for her delivery of the line “Oh dear God, it IS tomorrow.”. Her presence in the role brings gains and losses; she’s wonderful, but she’s also imperfect – and perhaps all the more so next to the marvellous Alex Young’s Young Sally, because Young has the acting chops and the voice.

The Loveland sequence as a whole, in fact, is somewhat problematic. Cooke’s direction, so perfect in the preceding scenes, goes off the rails a little with the onset of the climactic show-within-a-show. Loveland is basically a metaphorical Ziegfeld Follies performance in which the four principal characters each perform their own individual folly; the transition into Loveland is handled well enough, although the Loveland set could usefully look a little more opulent, and the scene-setting numbers for the Young quartet are perfectly charming. Forbes’s “Margie” and “Sally” in ‘Buddy’s Blues’ are chorus boys in drag; it’s not a damaging choice, and there’s nothing wrong with the performance, but it is a definite choice, and there’s no discernible reason for it.

[Edit – I’m informed by friends who would know – and I should have known too because I’ve read the same books – that using two chorus boys here was the way the number was originally conceived and staged, although that version of it didn’t make it as far as the Broadway opening. Oops.]

The staging of ‘Losing My Mind’ pulls your focus away from what Staunton’s Sally is feeling, and places it instead on what she’s doing. Phyllis’s ‘Story of Lucy and Jessie’, in which she tries to reconcile the chasm between her present and younger selves, is the most completely successful of the four numbers; Dee’s Phyllis, in a black dress that redefines va-va-voom, dances with Zizi Strallen’s Young Phyllis as well as a gaggle of chorus boys. Again, a definite choice, and not quite what the stage directions suggest, but it works, Bill Deamer’s choreography is terrific, and it’s crystal clear in this staging that Phyllis’s “folly” is her inability to reconcile the persona she assumed after marrying Ben with the (relatively) carefree but unschooled young woman she used to be (I think it’s crystal clear in the lyrics as well, but it’s a point that seems to have come as a surprise to at least one of London’s theatre critics). Quast’s ‘Live, Laugh, Love’ is great until the onset of the breakdown that takes us out of Loveland and back into the derelict theatre. His collapse simply isn’t big enough – and the issue is with the direction rather than the actor, because the scripted chaos/cacophony that accompanies the moment is also more subdued than it needs to be.

And again, having said all that, the final scene – with every line from the orignal version restored – is superb, and well worth whatever missteps the production might have taken during the preceding twenty minutes.

Other reservations? Purists might prefer Michael Bennett’s original choreography for ‘Who’s That Woman?’ to Deamer’s account of the number, in which the ‘ghosts’, in the tap section, take the stage alone before dancing with their older counterparts. It’s different, it works, and the number stops the show – and having the ghosts briefly supplant their older counterparts is entirely in keeping with the way this production uses the ghosts from the beginning as living memories who inhabit the theatre and refuse to be put to rest – but the original choreography is justifiably celebrated (and has occasionally been used in subsequent productions), and it’s momentarily jarring to see such a decisively different take on the song. And when just about everything else in Cooke’s production is executed with commendable subtlety and restraint, it’s (to say the least) a step too far to have the large electric WEISSMAN FOLLIES sign hanging over the stage sputter and fade so it just says LIES during the chaos sequence that takes us from Loveland back to the bare stage of the Weissman Theatre. We already got the point; it doesn’t need illuminating, particularly not with a several-feet-high sign made of lightbulbs.

And – not that this has anything to do with anything on the stage – exercise caution in the National Theatre bookshop after the show. If you care about such things, the new edition of the published script with this production’s artwork on the cover unfortunately does not reflect the version of the text used in this production:

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No, I didn’t buy it. There’s a long-out-of-print Random House edition of the original 1971 book; I once owned a copy but it went AWOL a few years ago; another is on the way. Secondhand copies cost more than the new published edition, but can be found within my pain threshold (and for less than I paid for the theatre ticket). Caveat emptor – and while I certainly understand the impulse to have a copy of the published script on sale to tie in with this revival, the differences between the two scripts mean this leaves a slightly sour taste. The revised script essentially reads as if Goldman went through his original book with a razor and carefully cut out everything that made it interesting. It’s a pale imitation; this production, despite a couple of flaws, offers the real deal.

Goodness, this went on for a long time, didn’t it? Overall, while this production makes a few missteps, a lot of it is thrilling. Cooke’s great achievement is to demonstrate loudly and clearly that despite the show’s “failure” back in 1971, the original book plays beautifully and is vastly superior to every subsequent rewrite. It’s a thoughtful, intelligent, sometimes dazzling production of difficult material, and – mostly – an impeccable presentation of Sondheim’s glorious score. You even get Jonathan Tunick’s original orchestrations, courtesy of a twenty-piece band tucked away at the back of the Olivier’s vast stage (the flawless musical direction is by Nigel Lilley). It isn’t quite the idealised revival of the show I’ve been carrying around in my head for the last twenty-plus years, but it probably couldn’t be; parts of it don’t match up, and parts of it are better than anything I’d imagined. Given the National’s budgetary constraints – the transition into Loveland really needs to look as if the designers threw a lot of money at the stage, and here it just doesn’t – and the fact that the show has never turned a profit in a commercial production, this is probably as good a revival as anyone could ever have expected. Cooke and Deamer’s choices, though, mean that devotees of the show – there are people, God help us, who are more obsessive than I am – are going to be arguing about this staging, and about at least a couple of the performances (Staunton and Bennett, and maybe Quast in the breakdown/chaos sequence) for years. Me? I’m just glad I get to see it again before it closes in January.

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Here’s a little story that should make you cry…

Follies DVD

Or, a game of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.

The good:
There is now a production of Follies available on DVD (and that’s all I’m going to say about the show itself, because if you’re reading this you probably shouldn’t need a synopsis.)

The bad:
It’s the Opéra de Toulon production from two years ago.

The ugly:
The actor playing Buddy (Jérôme Pradon) is costumed in a bright red sparkly tuxedo with subtly clashing red trousers, and is forced to perform “Buddy’s Blues” in his underwear.

The good:
Charlotte Page as Sally and Liz Robertson as Phyllis. Two fine performances, and they deserve to be in a better production. Page’s ‘In Buddy’s Eyes’, in particular, is absolutely haunting.

The bad:
The actress playing  Young Sally is a bit pitch-approximate, and for some strange reason is made up to resemble Siobhan Redmond playing Shona Spurtle in ‘The High Life’.

The ugly:
Did I mention the costumes?

The good:
There’s a large orchestra playing the original orchestrations under the baton of David Charles Abell, who is about as good as anyone in the world when it comes to this kind of material.

The bad:
The actors are stuck with the current licensed version of the text, which is significantly weaker than the 1971 original. For this, our thanks must allegedly go to James Goldman’s widow, who refuses to let any other version of the show be performed. Apparently she thinks her late husband’s work is better when it’s been disembowelled.

The ugly:
Really. Did I mention the costumes?

The good:
Charlotte Page’s Sally is probably the standout vocal performance here, but the singing is almost all excellent.

The bad:
You can’t always say the same for the acting, particularly from the people with bit-parts.

The ugly:
The same actor doubles as Roscoe and Max Deems. Max Deems only has about three lines – but for some reason the actor is forced to wear white face-paint, and looks as if he’s auditioning to play Ko-Ko in Jonathan Miller’s production of ‘The Mikado’ at the ENO. It just about works when he’s singing ‘Beautiful Girls’; in the subsequent scene, though, it looks odd.

The good:
Marilyn Hill Smith and Kristy Swift offer an absolutely ravishing ‘One More Kiss’.

The bad:
Solange is played by a man in drag (Denis D’Arcangelo) for no apparent reason; he does his best, but it doesn’t really work.

The ugly:
Marilyn Hill Smith’s lilac hair matches the fluffy hem of her gown.

And so on. It’s an odd, frustrating, sometimes very entertaining experience; the score, of course, is peerless, and it’s well played and often beautifully sung, and the power of the material does shine through here and there. Olivier Bénézech’s production, though, while obviously operating within fairly rigid budget constraints, is pretty much a two-hour parade of OMGWTF with a few good bits thrown in, and it says a great deal for the material, even in this weaker, revised version, that he and his choreographer (Caroline Roëlands)and set designer (Valérie Jung, whose designs for the Loveland sequence are the production’s lowest point) don’t manage to completely kill the show.

Unfortunately between them they very nearly kill ‘Who’s That Woman?’, which is usually one of the show’s great highlights; I can certainly forgive Roëlands for not using the original Michael Bennett choreography, which would perhaps have been too complicated to rehearse in what I imagine was a rather limited rehearsal period, but she simply misses the point of the number. The point of the song is to see the older characters singing and dancing with their younger selves; in what is supposed to be th efirst moment in the show where the past and present characters interact, Roëlands for some reason chooses to keep the ‘ghosts’ offstage until relatively late in the number. Instead we see video footage of the younger dancers projected on the back wall before they actually enter, and when they finally arrive onstage, they function more or less as a chorus line. If you didn’t know who/what they were supposed to represent, you might not guess; it’s not as if her choreography is particularly exciting to begin with, so as a result, the number that should be the show’s biggest showstopper falls flat.

The Loveland sequence, in terms of direction, is possibly worse. Musically, it’s a very respectable account indeed (we’ll draw a polite veil over Young Sally); visually, it’s a lurid day-glo nightmare of ugly projections and misguided costumes.

And speaking of the costumes, Sally enters at the top of the show wearing a green dress, which means that an hour later, in ‘Too Many Mornings’, she has to sing ‘should I have worn green?/I wore green the last time’ instead of ‘I should have worn green/I wore green the last time’. It’s a minor point, I suppose – but really, in the whole of the south of France, could they really only find Charlotte Page a green frock?

I could go on picking holes, but you get the idea – in many ways, this is as far from an ideal production of Follies as you could imagine. On the other hand… it’s a full production of Follies on DVD. It has the complete score, the original orchestrations, and a cast of good singers. The four principals are all in places undercut by the staging, but they all emerge with their dignity intact, and I’d be curious to see them all – particularly Page, who is good here and could be a very fine Sally indeed – in a better production. I even liked Graham Bickley (Ben), for only the second time ever (the first was as Signor Naccarelli in ‘The Light in the Piazza’ at Curve). Bénézech may botch some of the show’s big moments, but he does at least understand the basic rhythm of the scenes, and that they should cross-fade into each other so that the show never stops for a blackout.   Some of the earlier ensemble numbers, like ‘Waiting for the Girls Upstairs’, work very well, Julia Sutton’s ‘Broadway Baby’ is a delight, Nicole Croisille’s ‘I’m Still Here’ is a little eccentric in places but she gets away with it, and – have I mentioned this already? – there are 47 players in the pit, and the score sounds glorious. And above all, there is, thank God, no Bernadette Peters, whose jaw-droppingly awful performance as Sally on the show’s most recent cast album is even more misguided than Ms. Roëlands’s choreography for “Who’s That Woman”.

The bottom line: for the price of a DVD, if you love the material, this is probably worth owning.  If, on the other hand, I had shelled out for the cost of an expensive ticket plus hotel and airfare in order to see this production in the theatre, I imagine my response to it would be considerably less charitable.

Oh yes… and if you aren’t French, there’s a snag. The DVD is region 2 only, which is not an insurmountable problem, and it is not available for sale in English-speaking markets, which means you’re going to have to negotiate Amazon.fr, which only offers service in French.  Bonne chance!