Stephen Sondheim’s legendary 1971 non-narrative ode to unhappy marriage has been given a lavish, star-studded and long overdue revival. On the Olivier stage, the vast, ruined theatre of the former Weismann’s Follies sprawls with ghostly, “glorified” showgirls in feathers and gowns, majestically preying like lost cats in a junkyard.
“D is for the doubts that never fade away!” sings the operatic emcee Roscoe (Bruce Graham), during the paradise parade number “Loveland” that bursts out of nowhere to interrupt the action in the second half. The whole show (2 hours 20 with no interval) takes place at a pre-demolition party thrown by the mysterious, ancient impresario Dmitri Weismann himself (Gary Raymond), where now OAP former Follies girls (and boys) are forced to confront again their deep regrets (and doubts) about their love lives, marriage vows, and everything else. As the show goes on, the “Follies” of the title more and more suggest the “folly” and foolishness of these survivors.
Multi award-winning Imelda Staunton is electric as the terminally obsessed Sally, delivering the show’s most famous, heartbreaking number “Losing My Mind”. The show’s other well-known hit “I’m Still Here” gets the knockout treatment from similarly multi award-winning Tracie Bennett. Other stars Janie Dee, Philip Quast and Peter Forbes all get their time to shine within the central, bitter love quartet, bringing to life Sondheim’s dense, pastichey score with boundless energy.
Follies remains undoubtedly a musical theatre landmark, which explains the National Theatre’s astronomical-budget production here, with a full orchestra of twenty and a cast of dozens, not to mention the staggering set (Vicki Mortimer). Melancholy and spectacular; mysterious and fragmented; kitchen-sink and meta-theatrical; Follies shouldn’t work but it does, and five decades on this astounding new production sends audiences roaring to their feet.