Dominic Cooke’s revival of Follies is brilliant, and haunted. Sondheim’s musical is already so heavily overlaid with memories and spectres, not least of its hugely extravagant 1971 premiere run, which notoriously ran for 18 months and still lost a fortune. In the NT’s huge Olivier stage, it’s shadowy and taut as the cobwebs you can’t quite see in the theatre’s corners.
Vicki Mortimer’s masterful design hints at a broken down grand dame of a theatre, all subsided plushiness. The orchestra are seen through a darkened screen at the back of the stage, their instruments glimmering like the lights of a distant city at night. The theatre is a broken jaw of bricks. It’s marked by a dilapidated seating bank on one side, an addition that reminds us that the play’s protagonists are being doubly watched: by the audience, and by their past selves.
Cooke’s production takes the doubling in Sondheim’s original and emphasises it, making it both uncanny and emotionally rich. Follies is set at a champagne-soaked reunion of a group of retired showgirls, in the dying days of the theatre they used to star in. Inevitably, they’re seeing everyone and everything before them twice: once as they are, once as they were.
Each actor is stalked and watched by a glittering vision of their younger self, the women resplendent in vast headdresses and tight satin gowns. It made me think a little of the way that female celebrities are constantly held up against images of their younger selves. Or the way that older people will sometimes say that they only realised they were beautiful decades later, looking at old photos of themselves. But as well as the haunting power of vanished youth, there’s also something there about betraying our past selves: Young Phyllis (Zizi Strallen) looks into her older self’s eyes with bewildered fury when she learns that she cheats on her husband. This doubleness reaches its apogee with Josephine Barstow’s spellbinding operatic duet with her younger self. Their voices blend, identical in pitch but with each note marked by their divergent levels of age and experience.
It would be so easy to send up these women, keeping up appearances with helmet hair and well-set formal frocks. But when the faded impresario who’s brought them together makes a jibe at their appearance, it falls flat. What I love about Follies is that it’s seen so decisively through their eyes, and understands that they’re infinitely more compelling than their ‘juicy’ but insipid younger selves. Its most brilliant numbers – ‘Losing My Mind’, ‘I’m Still Here’ and ‘Could I Leave You?’ – couldn’t be sung by anyone but a woman over 40, with their stinging, soothing rebellions against a world which wants its former goddesses to age in obscurity. The NT’s production has an iron-strong cast of female performers, and resists marking their stories with any hint of cynical camp, even as we move from drinks reception into the dreamy world of the Follies revue.
After her wonderfully firm, tightly wound performance in Gypsy last year, Imelda Staunton makes spectacular work of her role as Sally – less all-powerful matriarch, more one of life’s perpetual younger sisters, girlish and lost in a desperate, all-consuming crush on another woman’s husband. Phyllis (Janie Dee) is haughty next to her, protective of the little empire she’s shored up against the ravages of time and obscurity. The two dance around each other, and their husbands, and eventually, in a wonderfully crafted metaphor for the mess relationships make when multiplied by years, they’re joined by their younger selves in an eight-strong outbreak of crying and clasping and clawing back.
And all the while, the Follies go on, their soaring emotional simplicities undercut by the unromantic truths their stars have gone on to learn. There are sappy numbers and tapdancing and pastel satin tuxes and drifting silk drapes patterned with vast weeping dahlias and chorus lines that are broken apart by performers who’ve learnt that no one, but no one, can live up to these spectacle’s infinite promise.
It’s a loving homage to the theatre of the 1920s and 1930s. But it’s also a reworking of it that’s smarter than those shows ever were, a coherent attempt to paint in the wrinkles, the flaws, the emotional complexities that those smiling showgirls had no space to show. It’s become a commonplace to say that Follies is structurally flawed, and it is, and it doesn’t matter. The cracks are where its beauties lie.