Given the increasing number of alleged sexual harassment and assault cases currently plaguing Hollywood, Follies, a musical where the Zeigfeld girls could be ‘had for a smile’ by Weismann, seems an uncomfortably appropriate choice for revival in 2017.
Stephen Sondheim’s 1971 musical theatre classic opens with the over-excitable Sally (a nuanced turn from Imelda Staunton) going to a reunion of the former Zeitgeist girls. The party takes place at their old theatre in New York – a wonderfully designed set by Vicki Mortimer, complete with a convenient crumbling staircase to serenade lost lovers and relive musical heydays – which is set to be demolished the following day. During the 140-minute running time, we see love lost, re-found, and dashed again, as the cast relive the not-so golden days of their glitzy youth.
Follies offers a wealth of opportunity for older women to hold the stage, proving definitively, as Tracie Bennet reminds us in her defiant solo, that they are most certainly still here. Retired opera singer’s Dame Josephine Barrow’s powerful rendition of One More Kiss was one of the highlights of the show, with Di Botcher’s Broadway Baby in hot pursuit.
The inter-mingling of past and present is reinforced by the constant presence of the dazzling memories of the cast’s younger selves, who shadow and stalk their now middle-aged counterparts across the stage. The Zeitgeist girls, bedecked in ostrich feathers, wearing sequined gowns and extravagant headdresses, come shoulder-to-shoulder with Staunton, Dee and the rest in the energetic group tap dance number, Who’s That Woman?
Whilst Who’s That Woman? was playful and upbeat, witnessing the contrast between the young, idealistic Buddy and Ben in their sharp suits and bowler hats against the depressed, philandering middle-aged characters, elicits a more emotional response from the audience.
The breakdown of the central couples’ relationships – the small-town Sally and Buddy and the New York sophisticates Phyllis and Ben – complete with cheating, regret for past partners, and yearning for lives almost lived, constitutes the nucleus of the show.
The surreal third act sees Sondheim embark on the Follies proper. With a new gauzy, illuminated set descending from the ceiling and a cast of Renaissance-era-costumed chorus characters spilling onto the stage, Sondheim outlines the principle folly of each of the main foursome through tailored solo songs. Ranging in tone from the intense pathos of Sally’s Losing My Mind to the panicked japery of Buddy’s Folly, all the characters are united by a common fear: the fear of getting older, and looking back on a life of missed potential.
However, Follies’ ending felt more bitter than sweet. After Phyllis’s triumphant Could I Leave You and Sally’s hysterical reveal of her obsessive love for Ben, as well as the myriad other women and love affairs that litter the show, the couples ultimately stay together, in their unhappy, yet happy, lives. For these four characters, the old idiom seemingly proves true: You can’t live with ‘em, you can’t live without!
Follies was shown at The Dukes in a live broadcast from the National Theatre. The Dukes will broadcast Young Marx starring Rory Kinnear live from the National Theatre on the 7th December.