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Follies, Market Drayton Festival Centre - review

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“We’re going to glamorise the past, stumble through a song or two, and lie about ourselves,” says impresario Weisman as he launches a reunion party for veteran Follies showgirls prior to his Broadway theatre being demolished.

Adam Rhys-Charles as Young Ben and Alex Young as Young Sally in FOLLIES at the National Theatre (c) Johan Persson

Except for that word ‘stumble’, it’s pretty much what we get -- there isn’t much by way of a plot. But Stephen Sondheim delivers each aspect of this opening promise so inventively and so richly that it constitutes a masterpiece of musical theatre.

As the veterans from the Follies of the inter-war years reminisce, the stories of Phyllis and Ben (UN diplomat, then finance) and Sally and Buddy (travelling salesman) gradually unfold.

Sally still hankers after Ben, who may or may not once have loved her; Buddy sort of adores Sally but enjoys life more with the mistress who loves him; Phyllis changed her life to become what Ben needed, which is no longer Phyllis; Ben regrets choices he has made but sees no alternatives.

What makes all this so emotionally engaging is the central dramatic device of having the veterans and their younger selves on stage at the same time.

Old speak to young, young watch their older selves. The follies of youth speak to the follies of age.

Imelda Staunton as Sally Durant Plummer and Janie Dee as Phyllis Rogers Stone in FOLLIES at the National Theatre (c) Johan Persson

We see one in the other as younger selves haunt the stage like ghosts, and when they come together in dance and in song it is heartbreakingly poignant.

In an interview before this streamed performance from The National Theatre, director Dominic Cooke said they spent a year casting the show. It was a good investment, and the results are so uniformly excellent that I’m not going to single out individuals for praise. Every moment felt like a highlight.

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Where I do take exception to Cooke is in his praise for the ‘new’ skills of the camera director for the streamed event.

Regular readers of my reviews will know I am generally a great enthusiast for streamed performances. But here there was far too much moving in close for the nuances of facial expressions. The set was designed around large half-demolished brick walls with a tall fire escape, on a circulating stage.

Geraldine Fitzgerald as Solange LaFitte and Sarah Marie Maxwell as Young Solange in FOLLIES at the National Theatre (c) Johan Persson

There was so much movement in three planes, I resented the cameraman choosing for me where to look. At times, too, the sound balance for streaming was not right: the orchestra was too loud for the voices and we lost some of Sondheim’s exquisitely clever lyrics.

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Because of its large cast and elaborate staging Follies is rarely performed, and I shouldn’t be churlish about this opportunity to see such an outstanding production in my local theatre. But on this occasion, I missed feeling that the cast were communicating directly with me.

As the live audience rose to give a standing ovation, I bottled up my emotions and shuffled out more dispassionately.

By John Hargreaves

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