If you are going to see Follies, be warned: this production is a tapestry so complex that at no point does the audience know where to look. Wherever the focus of a scene seems to be, there is always something else happening in the background or off to the side. You dare not focus for fear of missing some subtlety on the other side of the stage. I have seen it three times so far, and still feel I have not quite experienced the whole of it.
Follies has all the hallmarks of a great Sondheim show – that almost macabre dissection of human relationships which grips anyone who has ever fallen in or out of love. This particular production is also a tribute to resilient womanhood: from the opening strains of Beautiful Girls to the reprise at the end, the men play second fiddle: they are the plus ones, merely a part of the stories of these women. They mourn for former glories, grasp for emotional strength, hold handbags, watch from the shadows. The men wait and prevaricate. The women dominate centre stage.
Everyone – and everything – in this show is superb. Not flawless – of which more later – but of a quality that is unlike anything else you will see. It is a perfect combination of material – which, although acknowledged to be problematic has been reworked expertly here – direction and performance and a testament to the sort of thing that can be achieved with publicly funded theatre. It’s unlikely that a show like this, at a scale of this kind, would not work commercially.
There are three types of song in this show: the showcase showstoppers (Broadway Baby, I’m Still Here, Who’s That Woman, One More Kiss etc); dialogue songs that move the action along (Waiting for the Girls Upstairs, Don’t Look at Me, In Buddy’s Eyes Too Many Mornings, Could I Leave You) and the follies themselves (You’e Gonna Love Tomorrow, Buddy’s Blues, Losing My Lind, The Ballad of Lucy and Jessie, Live, Laugh, Love). These are performed to incredible effect by all concerned – the casting in most cases so perfect you cannot imagine each number being performed by anyone else or any other way.
Imelda Staunton is one of those performers whose work I admire so much its’ hard for me to be objective – and the combination of her talent and Sondheim’s is intoxicating in the extreme. There’s no question she is fantastic as Sally Durant Plummer – possibly the least sympathetic character in the show. Her rendition of In Buddy’s Eyes takes a frankly quite cloying – and at times lyrically repetitive, though it reveals some of Sally’s obsessive nature – song and turns it into one of the best musical moments of the show. Her voice breaks in all the right places – notably on the line “I’m still a princess” – and anyone who has experienced the warm beam of adoration will feel the emotional punch. It’s a scene to give you chills. Losing My Mind is often performed as a lovelorn ballad, but in Staunton’s hands it is become the battle cry of a woman scorned. Sally’s helplessness – her inability to know whether to brush her hair, drink her bourbon or stare wistfully into her vanity mirror – gives way to seething rage at the rejection she has experienced. When she sings “You said you loved me,” clutching her empty class, there is rage intermingled with her despair, her face is tense with it, the words “you bastard!” are almost implied. I got the sense that if Ben were stood before her that glass would be hastily smashed and thrust into his face. Her intense lingering gaze at the end of the number is not that of a woman lost – instead, it is reminiscent of a Hollywood ‘bunny boiler’. This is a woman who does not internalise her hurt, who seeks revenge on whoever is most accessible to her, as hinted at by the long, rageful phonecalls to her distant sons.
And yet, Staunton doesn’t give the show’s standout performance. That comes from Janie Dee – exceptional as fast-talking, sharp, brutal Phyllis. She’s elegant and relentless, delivering her one-liners to perfection without once stooping to ruffle her feathers. While the role of Sally offers room for interpretation, the role of Phyllis is so taut that the performer cannot miss a beat. Phyllis is the only character whose emotional epiphany doesn’t involve a breakdown, in fact, she emerges still calm, still collected, and triumphant. Dee is custodian of one of the finest numbers in the show – Could I Leave You – and performs it with a brilliance and gusto that leaves you on a high. #TeamPhyllis all the way!
I was lucky enough to attend the Platform with Janie Dee and Phillip Quast and got to ask them to reveal their favourite moments in the show. So many, too many to mention – everyone in Follies, after all, is a star. For me, that moment is Too Many Mornings – vocally the absolute peak of what this cast can do, pitched perfectly at that point where musical theatre and opera converge. Staunton and Quast execute it superbly – in my view it could not be perfected beyond what they have done.