By Tony Peters
When fans of musical theatre despair at the arrival of yet another show comprising the back catalogue of a pop group shoehorned into a flimsy plot, they know they can turn to Stephen Sondheim to remind them that the genre is capable of being lifted to high art.
And that is demonstrated brilliantly in this thrilling revival of his 1971 show about old troupers from a Broadway theatre gathering for a reunion before the venue is torn down to make way for an office building.
It’s a homage to the Great White Way and the days of Vaudeville wrapped around a story of unrequited love, broken relationships and unfulfilled dreams that is by turns uplifting, funny and heartbreaking.
Director Dominic Cooke’s production is a masterclass in dramatic construction in which the present day performers are observed by the ghosts of their younger selves, the two worlds often coming so close as to share vocals and dialogue and the younger versions agonising over what they have become. It’s a theatrical device that gives every scene an extra, vital poignancy.
The 37-strong cast doesn’t put a foot wrong as they move from one show-stopping number to the next, either the ensemble stormer Who’s that Woman (brilliantly choreographed by Bill Deamer) or Tracie Bennett belting out the defiant I’m Still Here, again watched from the shadows by the ghost of her former self and turning what is already a great performance into something even more potent.
At the production’s heart, however, is the story of two couples for whom the reunion opens old wounds, brings back memories of lost loves and reveals frustrations at a life unfulfilled, featuring a quartet of performances that take the breath away.
Imelda Staunton (on her third Sondheim in five years after Olivier-winning turns in Sweeney Todd and Gypsy) shows a new vulnerability — the flipside of Momma Rose — as Sally, who is married to Buddy (Peter Forbes) but still clings to dreams of ending up with Ben (Philip Quast, stunning on his duet Too Many Mornings with Staunton). But Ben married Sally’s old roommate Phyllis (Janie Dee), and they now find themselves in an empty relationship that consists of little more than exchanging barbed insults. Dee gives one of the performances of her life here spitting out acid-tongued one-liners and bringing the house down on Could I Leave You?, a demonstration, if any was needed, of Sondheim’s mastery as a lyricist.
Coming in at what could be a bladder-bothering two hours and fifteen minutes without an interval proves to be absolutely the right decision to maintain a continuity and momentum to the storyline. The show sung through has always been Sondheim’s own preference for the work.
Some might say the mix of nostalgia and melodramatic love story is manipulative, but in the hands of this cast and a team of creatives at the very top of their game it’s a production that oozes class and is impeccable from the first note to the last.
Follies is at the National Theatre until 3 January and will be broadcast live to cinemas on 16 November