Picture the scene. December 2017. A cold, damp, dark, festive-free Monday meeting in a cold, damp, dark, festive-free South Bank office. Lots of people mumbling. Few people speaking. A large photograph of Sir Nicholas Hytner on the wall - the “sir” marker-penned out and overwritten with “Not fair” over and over. A plethora of yellow post-its strewn across the table, each bearing a surname followed by a red X. There’s Sarandon X… Roberts X… Paltrow X and…in the centre of the table by a half eaten croissant...”Blanchett ???”
Two deliciously interval-free hours of musical theatre pleasure
A tense silence broken by a small voice from the corner. "Well, I know it hasn’t actually finished yet. And I know Immy will be busy breaking box office elsewhere. But. Well. We could just do Follies again. Everybody loves Follies." And a light as bright as Christmas itself shone through the window. And it seemed that all was once again well….
This may or may not have been taken from the minutes of the NT’s planning meeting that year. But it must have been as easy as this to make one of the smarter of the National Theatre’s recent management decisions. It’s a rare occasion when the flair of the creative meets the logic of the commercial without one party wanting to change something crucial to achieving the objective of the other. But no need to worry about Stacey Solomon trying to emulate Imelda Staunton’s award-winning performance here. (FYI – it’s Joanna Riding who does that. And does a fair job of it too).
Fortunately, it seems common sense alone brings this speedy return of Dominic Cooke's 2017 sold-out production of Sondheim's musical lament back to The National’s Olivier Theatre. So if you didn’t catch it before, and you’re even a teensy bit of a Sondheim fan, you should get a ticket while you can. It’s two deliciously interval-free hours of musical theatre pleasure that, for the staging and music alone, will make you just warm and fuzzy for when theatre is done well.
And this is theatre that is done... well... That said, it’s maybe worth managing your expectations a little. If you are expecting to be extolling its perfection to all and sundry for weeks to come or recalling the magical moments that become imprinted on your memory for the rest of your pre-senility days – as the almost cross board five star reviews may have you expect – well... expect less. A lot less in fact. Yes it’s good. It’s nice. Like a nice biscuit and a good cup of tea. At home. Wearing your comfy slippers. Nothing wrong with that. Nothing at all. Nothing.
It may sound churlish to criticise. And I hate to be one of those ‘friends of Google’ who start every sentence with “actually I think you’ll find’ as though carrying pins of gloom to burst balloons of pleasure. (Actually I think you’ll find that if you google “Follies. Bad review”, the closest you get to negativity is articles questioning Quentin Lett’s implied racism of another show entirely... I’ll wait... )
It’s easy to see how this production could be held up as the A, B, C of “How to Do A Musical At The National”. The music sees Sondheim doing intelligence that isn’t exclusively for the Intelligencia. There are feather festooned dancers doing the most beautiful dances that we love these days from Strictly. Moments of Vaudevillian comedy ooze pathos. And of course, with the likes of I’m Still Here and Losing My Mind (the latter sung by the spirit of Judy Garland, seemingly taking over the ever-smaller frame of Tracie “I’m not a bloody singer, ok” Bennett), and many other songs you didn’t know you knew, there are enough classics and torch songs to make a drag queen blush. To mix my metaphors, the A, B, C just made it all a bit colour by numbers for me and it lacks the fire and passion that a spectacular five star show has.
The problem in all fairness is really down to James Goldman’s book. Some say it’s two different stories going on – the chorus and leads as it were – but it’s not that structured at all. It just throws out depthless characters in sketch after sketch without start or finish, and then tries to hold them all in with Sondheim’s songs as though into one big group hug that they want to avoid. Metaphor aside – it’s just a bit shit.
Since the original 1971 production, the only other West End outing changed the ending and focussed on an album release during the heyday of West End Wendys, and many ‘concert versions’ have popped up and included powerhouse performances of the songs. There is an implication here that being only the second time it has been done this way, this production is better because it’s the original. I think it’s probably better. But in spite of it being so.
It makes the interwoven central story of the star-crossed lost love feel laboured and shallow. Theirs is just another of the many many many scenes that run on, give a five minute back story, sing and run off again. There are at least five full stories in Follies that could all be brilliant (as well as the obvious choice of the pain behind the princess that is Garland, sorry, Carlotta of Still Here fame, I for one would kill to see Solange’s story). But all together, the sum becomes much less than the parts.
Take for example, when we are moved by Dee’s mascara-running breakdown of Losing My Mind. We’re moved because we see the mascara neatly applied in ‘run-down’ style. And because we hear the swell of the orchestra in the opening bars. And because the lyrics build and build to a groundswell of emotions. Which is why we’re moved, Pavlov’s dog style. There’s nothing else on the page from which these, or any, performers can give.
It’s a production made for The Olivier – as one of the Autumn/Winter productions tend to be – as though The Olivier had been made for it. To the extent that if this production were to end up having a further extension to its life by transferring to a smaller West End venue – as many recent shows have done – I think it would suddenly be seen without the rose tinted glasses adorning Buddy’s Eyes. You can’t underestimate the importance of Vicki Mortimer’s sumptuous design as it epitomises the decadent despair, the physical manifestation of dreams being destroyed. It is the design that acts as the skeleton brought to life by the blood that beats through Sondheim’s lyrics, helping us to forget the messy carcass of the book around it.