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Follies (National Theatre, Olivier)

Stephen Sondheim’s bittersweet musical of theatreland gone by has its first major revival in London in years, and the book by James Goldman has now been returned fairly closely to the original plot, with the songs added for the 1987 revival dropped and the likes of ‘The Road You Didn’t Take’ and ‘The Story of Lucy and Jessie’ returned to their rightful place.

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The set is a depiction of the decayed and partly demolished Weissman Theatre, where the neon still works but the walls are crumbling, the seats are distressed, and the auditorium is ruined.  For me, the opening scene and prologue takes too long to introduce everyone, but that would be true of every version of this show, and it is certainly touching to see the mature showgirls descend the ‘staircase’ (in reality, a less-than-glamorous fire escape) one last time, while their younger selves move in ghostly sequins and sparkles in from the stage.

This show is very much about those ladies who graced the Weissman Follies between the two World Wars, and although we are more focused on the story of two of them – Sally (Imelda Staunton), and Phyllis (Janie Dee) – we still feel invested in the others, from Carlotta the movie star (Tracie Bennett, done up as Joan Crawford in stern red, and decaying from despair, drink, and dallying with young men who ‘mean nothing’), ageing opera diva Heidi (Josephine Barstow, whose delicate depiction of sad memories of an affair with the boss, Mr Weissman (Gary Raymond, who makes an sobering impact in a nothing part, as lost in time as his girls), is as touching as her faded soprano voice in ‘One Last Kiss’, a duet with her younger self, played by Alison Langer), to the much-married and knowing Hattie (Di Boutcher, who knocks ‘Broadway Baby’ out of the park from the moment she removes her glasses, but who is surely far too young for the part), and the rather sad Solange (Geraldine Fitzgerald, with her memories of ‘Paree’).

Staunton has shone in a couple of award-winning Sondheims already – from 2012’s glorious ‘Sweeney Todd’, to 2015’s ‘Gypsy‘.  Further back she was a stunning Miss Adelaide in ‘Guys and Dolls’, so she has the musical credentials, and as an Oscar Best Actress nominee for ‘Vera Drake’, she is also known as a talented actress.  Both skills serve her well as Sally Plummer, a tiny housewife with a salesman husband, Buddy (Peter Forbes), who is cheating on her, and dreams which have never died for her former lover, Ben (Philip Quast, always a favourite of mine, and I’m delighted to see him back in a leading role), who rejected her for her friend Phyllis (perhaps sensing she would be more acceptable material for a politician’s wife).

follies-national-theatre-r009Adam Rhys-Charles, Zizi Strallen, Philip Quast – rehearsal photo by Johan Persson

This Weissman reunion brings Sally and Ben back together for the first time in thirty years, and in ‘Don’t Look At Me’, Staunton attempts to make a connection which leads Ben to think back to the girl he used to know (Alex Young, who made such an impact in the ENO’s ‘Carousel‘ this summer, as Carrie, and previously in the New London’s ‘Show Boat’), and to look, for a moment, kindly on the disturbed and clingy woman she has become.  When Quast and Staunton duet in ‘Too Many Mornings’, there is a glorious blend of music, memories, and the magic of what could-have-been, however transient that feeling may be.  Staunton may be a little short, height-wise, for the pivotal kiss which she takes as a way out of her boring life with the Buddy she has ceased to see, but we do engage with their relationship from this point on.

Janie Dee’s Phyllis is the textbook example of a rich socialite whose life is totally empty, with a nice house bursting at the seams with ‘the Chagalls and all that’, but lacking love, attention, or the children she so desperately wanted.  She has grown so tired of life, that her ‘Would I Leave You’ is perfectly delivered and completely believable; theirs is a marriage of convenience that doesn’t even feel convenient anymore.  But yet, in the end, she is the one who shows the most strength, and who will, we feel, at least attempt to pick up the pieces.  Her younger shadow is played by the dazzling Zizi Strallen, who has the star quality and energy which must have turned the young Ben’s head while he and Buddy were ‘Waiting for the Girls Upstairs’.

follies-national-theatre-r007Liz Izen, Liz Ewing, Tracie Bennett, Imelda Staunton, Dawn Hope, Janie Dee, Julie Armstrong, Gemma Page – rehearsal photo by Johan Persson

Peter Forbes is Buddy, a salesman who is really no good, and who calls anywhere he lays his hat home.  His routine involves going out on the road to shack up with Margie, a bright young thing who idolises him (the character always makes me think of ‘Death of a Salesman’ and Willy Loman, who is stuck in a spiral of not quite reaching the American Dream), and then returning to Sally, who fantasises that in his eyes she’s ‘young and beautiful’.  Their marriage has children, but they have moved away to escape their mother’s neuroses and arguments, so you can imagine the echoes of their empty rooms where the boys once played and fought.

The last section of the show moves from the realism of the crumbling theatre of the past to a fantasy staging of ‘Loveland’, a sequence which I always find problematic, but which brings the young quartet to the fore (as well as Young and Strallen, the young Ben and Buddy are played well by Adam Rhys-Charles and Fred Haig) before moving into the individual follies of each as they are now: Buddy, dealing with a drag depiction of his mixed love-life done in a vaudevillian style; Sally, in a blonde wig and a sumptuous dressing room, ‘losing her mind’; Phyllis, in old and young versions, doing as well as she can to tell us about Lucy and Jessie; and Ben’s Fred Astaire pastiche which collapses into an emotional breakdown.  Although I love ‘Losing My Mind’, and Staunton did it well, this whole sequence remains a problem, and as much as I admire Quast, and he did all he could with the number, the breakdown felt rushed to me, which may well have been a directorial mis-step.

What else?  Bennett channels Judy Garland (again, but beautifully) in the caustic ‘I’m Still Here’.  The mirror number ‘Who’s That Woman’ weirdly has the young chlorines not mirroring their older counterparts, and I felt in this case the Royal Albert Hall concert did this number better (although I did like Dawn Hope’s Stella, and the chance to see Liz Izen’s Deedee in the line-up).  Billy Boyle and Norma Atallah are fun, and poignant, as the Whitmans.

This may not be a perfect revival, but it is a great show, and it is rare to see something done on this scale, with so much love and energy – an emotional powerhouse, with eminently hummable tunes.

Do go, and also grab a copy of the fantastic programme, which is full of information, articles, and pictures and can be yours for just a fiver.

 

 

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Waiting for Godot (Barbican Centre)

The International Beckett Season at the Barbican showcases a range of productions of the plays of Samuel Beckett, the centrepiece being this revival of the 2013 version by the Sydney Theatre Company.

In the roles of Vladimir (Didi) and Estragon (Gogo) are a pair of actors best known on these shores for their screen credits: Hugo Weaving, who was Elrond in the ‘Lord of the Rings Trilogy’ and Mitzi in ‘The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert’; and Richard Roxburgh, who was The Duke in ‘Moulin Rouge’ and Sherlock Holmes in ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’.  Not looking remotely film-starish here, both men effortlessly inhabit their roles and are clearly at ease with working together.

Playing broadly in the vaudevillian style, Weaving is clearly the posher of the two, with decayed dignity (note the way he puts on his new hat and tosses his greasy hair), while Roxburgh is lower class, with comic expressions, sleepy resignation, and more accepting of the plodding boredom of their daily lives as tramps, eating carrots and radishes, suffering from tight boots and urinary problems, and waiting for the ever-elusive Godot.

Each day in this bleak landscape with one stick-like tree and a derelict black building facing back-on to nothingness is clearly much the same, where the two friends pass the time in idle chit-chat, attempts to entertain each other, and thoughts of suicide which they can never follow through.  Into this limited world wander two men who impact on the story in different ways in each of the two halves – the blustering, charming and faintly ridiculous Pozzo, who is all bombast in his first appearance and vaguely pathetic in his second one; and witch-like Lucky, panting and slavering with the bags he can only briefly put down.

As Pozzo, Philip Quast impacts both as the cruel slavemaster and the blackly humorous bon viveur who clearly loves the fine things in life with his wine, pipe and fur-trimmed coat.  Starkly bullet-headed and neatly-bearded, he resembles a carnival barker who is slightly corrupt – and in the second half there is a fair amount of physical comedy which is well performed with Weaving in particular.  Lucky has wild white hair and a ghostly, sickly pallor, as if a gust of wind would finish him off – Luke Mullins catches the sense of the absurd in his demeanor and monologue, but he didn’t quite pack the emotional punch or the virtuosity of delivery I saw in a previous Lucky (Richard Dormer in 2006).

For the first UK production in the 1950s, director Peter Hall stated he did not understand the play and did not need to to make it a success: for the Sydney production, Andrew Upton explains in the programme that this version is a group collaboration using Beckett’s detailed stage directions as a starting point.  Certainly the cast work well together in a play which must be physically and mentally draining to perform, and there are several lovely moments between Weaving, Roxburgh and Quast in particular, causing some genuine audience laughter as well as a reflection of the emotional starkness of this prime example of Theatre of the Absurd.


Sweeney Todd (English National Opera, London Coliseum)

We were lucky enough to see the final performance (of a short run of 14) of the ENO’s ‘Sweeney Todd’, a production first performed at the Lincoln Center with the New York Philharmonic.  Ported over for this show were Bryn Terfel (Sweeney Todd), Emma Thompson (Mrs Lovett) and Philip Quast (Judge Turpin), with the addition of Matthew Seadon-Young as Anthony, Katie Hall as Johanna, John Owen-Jones as Pirelli, Jack North as Tobias, Rosalie Craig as the Beggar Woman, and Alex Gaumond as the Beadle.

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At the start it seems as if we are going to see a straight concert performance, but this seems a waste of a good cast and a vibrant, beautiful venue, so as Terfel and co throw down their scores, destroy items on the stage, and hand out props from an ENO trunk, we pitch into Sondheim’s powerful score with some style, and stuffy concert formality is pushed aside for banners, graffiti, and bloody handprints (the conductor even sports one on the back of his shirt, visible through his ripped black jacket).

sweeney2

Whether the production is a success or not generally depends on whether the balance of darkness and comedy is depicted correctly – and in Thompson there is a saucy playfulness around a hard interior which is quite happy to condone and encourage mass murder to encourage the pie trade.  In Terfel’s magnificent Sweeney we see an icy resolve for revenge, not just on the men who violated his wife and stole his daughter, but on everyone who needs a shave.  Truly there are no closer shaves to be found on Fleet Street.

Sondheim’s score, too, is towering, walking the line between musical and opera without effort – so that one of opera’s greatest bass-baritones fits well in the role alongside a musical comedy actress and a baritone who has played most of the major roles in musicals without having formal voice training.  Owen-Jones may be slightly wasted in the role of Pirelli, but he is fun, while Philip Quast is hissably repellent as the judge who finds himself lusting after his adopted daughter, who ‘looks lovely in her white muslin dress’.  Absent from London stages since La Cage Aux Folles six years ago, he’s welcome back in the UK after a run of successes in his native Australia, and it is a privilege to hear him sing the duet ‘Pretty Women’ with Terfel.

Thompson has two comedy high points in ‘The Worst Pies in London’ and ‘By The Sea’ (with a handy spray bottle to evoke the briny), while her duet with Terfel, ‘A Little Priest’ sizzles with menace against audience, orchestra and unsuspecting pie eaters alike.  In a red outfit with slashed collar and headscarf, she totters between industrious baker and lovestruck widow, and she has great chemistry with her Sweeney.

Thumbs up for this production’s Anthony and Johanna too, with their ‘Green Finch and Linnet Bird’ song of young love, and their eventual look of horror at the mouth of hell in the bakehouse’s final carnage.  And Tobias, the young lad who we first see as Pirelli’s assistant, a cheeky chap with a fast mouth, becomes a broken bird, and perhaps his story is the saddest of all.


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