Follies, Olivier Theatre

10/10

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.

 

 

 

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Common, Olivier Theatre

3/10

I’m afraid to say, I found Common uncommonly bad, fell asleep at one point and left at the interval feeling somewhat perplexed as the play appeared to have ended, but not finished. I realise not every first act ends with a cliffhanger, but they should, as a general rule, leave the audience wanting to know what happens next. That this one didn’t is the least of its problems.

What I could extract from the nonsense before me was that Mary is a foundling who gets slung out on her ear after having an affair with her adoptive sister, goes to London, makes some money whoring, gets knocked up and comes back to her country roots to take her long lost love Laura off to Boston to bring up baby. Along the way she spars with Laura’s brother, King, meets a boy with an allegedly possessed crow on his arm and does a lot of protesting about the enclosure laws that are about to come into force. The dialogue is awful. DC Moore has decided to draw comparisons between 19th Century peasants and sink estate youths – at least that’s the only plausible explanation I can dream up for writing a play in language that jumbles together complex archaic constructions with a touch of the Wurzels. The resulting effect is something akin to white noise punctuated with the word “fuck” at various intervals. Moore’s only strategy for raising the occasional laugh is to use phrases like “pissy pipe” and “furry hole”.

Lest we mistake this for a genuine play of the period, Moore makes certain to indicate that its influences are scrupulously contemporary. In a scene reminiscent of the coming-of-age ritual of many a Corrie/Emmerdale/Eastenders teenager, Mary abruptly announces “I’m pregnant!” mid-argument. People are constantly digging graves, and no-one watching really cares who died (or is about to). About 30 minutes in, I took a nap. The nightmare was that it was all still going when I awoke.

In fairness to Amy Downham (Mary), she was only standing in for Ann-Marie Duff, but her performance felt more like that of someone reading from a script they’ve read once or twice than one who believes in the character or story being portrayed. Perhaps she’s read the notices which, I understand, are no good, and given up on the play like the rest of us. Cush Jumbo, as Laura, does some acting and I must admit hers were the only lines and scenes I managed to remember after making my escape.

There are some positives. This play has an interval, allowing the imprudent ticket purchaser to escape after 90 minutes. I liked the set. The dusky skyline splattered with crows in flight is very striking, and I liked to focus on the distant, glowing horizon with its roofs and spires whenever the boredom got too much to bear. I was able to work out what sort of view I’ll get when I go to see Follies in September, and ponder what that set might be like. And I liked the costumes: Mary’s red riding outfit was very striking, and the Woodland Folk looked delightfully sinister.

But of course, when the play is so poor that all your joy comes from rustic rabbit heads, you know the production is in trouble.