Review: Dominic Cooke’s Follies @ The National Theatre
by Polly Hember

Photo by Johan Persson

In Jean Rhys’s Voyage in the Dark, which traces a young chorus girl Anna’s life in a cruel London, a ‘very clever man’ muses that ‘there were pretty girls in England, but very few pretty women. In fact, hardly any’, he continues, ‘I don’t believe there are any. Why? What happens to them? A few pretty girls and then finish, a blank, a desert. What happens to them?’ Follies presents an answer to this question. It presents a complex musical bursting with splendour and sadness, offering a relentless two hours and fifteen minutes (running without an interval) that examines the lives of ex-Follies showgirls who are reunited at a party, celebrating and commiserating the demolition of their old haunt (notably being torn down to pave a new car park).

 

Many critics have cited Follies as an inherently problematic production to stage, often unable to balance the pathos and glamour; the tension between James Goldman’s intense, introspective dialogue and the glittering music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Dominic Cooke’s production triumphs in marrying the two competing drives: the anxious nostalgia and the seductive glamor of the roaring twenties with desolating deftness. Cooke’s production is serious and sharp. It could be tempting, I imagine, to imbue Follies with a campness, ramp up the glamor, push a rose-tinted veneer over the show, or attempt to soften the sardonic quips with a forgiving humour. Cooke does not allow for many gentle reprises. Instead, he facilitates the excavational and uncomfortable scraping away of the four protagonist’s neuroses, failings and follies of youth.

This is achieved by phenomenal staging and performance from an immensely talented cast. The production is structured around an inherent duality in discussing the present and the past. Each of the ex-Follies showgirls is accompanied by a shimmering ghost of their past self. Adorned with golden headdresses, plumes of peacock feathers and sparkling with nostalgia in the shadowy background; these ghosts of former follies look on at their futures with entranced gazes, follow their counterparts around the stage a golden shadow, or else join their present-day selves in song.

"Follies sparkles with cruelty and glamour"

We see pivotal vignettes from the past played out by Sally, Phyllis, Ben and Buddy’s younger selves, intertwining their dialogue, song and movements with their older selves to show how their shared past encroaches on their present-day lives. Felicity Lott and Alison Langer deliver a particularly beautiful duet in ‘One More Kiss’. Tracie Bennett is striking as Carlotta, performing a powerful rendition of ‘I’m Still Here’, a life-story of survival (“I’ve seen all my dreams disappear”) that finishes with a triumphant claiming of her space here in the present day (“but I’m here!”) as her glittering younger self watches on tenterhooks from the back of the stage.

Ian McIntosh as a young Ben, Joanna Riding as Sally and Gemma Sutton as young Sally. Photo by Johan Persson

Joanna Riding is fantastic as Sally; neurotic, nervous and sweet at the start, she navigates Sally’s downfall into drunken delusion beautifully. Still haunted with a desperate love for her old best friend Phyllis’s husband Ben, there is no point of Follies more caustic or more bittersweet than Riding’s crumbling, croaking last few notes of “you said you loved me, or where you just being kind?” in ‘Losing My Mind’. If Sally’s vulnerability is imagined by Riding like an open wound; Janie Dee’s imagines Phyllis’s past wounds as hardened, bitter and closed over. Dee brings Phyllis to the stage as strong and sardonic but manages to convey the intense conflict the lonely Phyllis feels as she attempts to reconcile the fragmented parts of herself; the young, innocent twenty-something-year-old and the jaded woman she is now, desperate to care for a baby that her adulterous and distant Ben never let her have.

The production feels as if it is staged between final the clock strokes of midnight in Cinderella’s fairy tale, on the verge of something terrible where the ambivalent protagonists feel as if they are trying to run away from their past, but in fleeing they leave not just glass slippers behind in the wreckage, but chunks of their very being. The set is comprised of a half-ruined theatre, rubble piled high at the back of the stage which sharply contrasts the elaborate and artful costumes of the ghostly Follies girls. The characters are paralysed by the follies of their past, but being driven forward into a bleak tomorrow. Cooke is similarly unrelenting in his direction, driving the characters to confront their dark psyches, delving into romance, nostalgia, heartbreak and pathos.

 

Unafraid to confront the fear of ageing and uncertainty, Cooke’s masterful production demonstrates how the follies of youth never really leave us. They stay lodged inside us and shape us and our “tomorrows”, with the malignant potential to invoke neurotic nostalgia that threatens to eclipse the future entirely. Follies sparkles with cruelty and glamour. This production at the National Theatre is profoundly effective; a beautiful and abrasive production that, I’m sure, will haunt its audience for long time after the final curtain, much like the glittering ghosts of the Follies’ past that shadow the stage.

Follies is at the National Theatre until 11th May 2019. Book tickets here, and listen to the incredible soundtrack on Spotify

Polly Hember is a writer, editor, coffee-drinker and country-music listener. She is currently doing a PhD in Media Arts looking at the modernist ciné-novel.

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