Stephen Sondheim’s musical masterpiece is revived with a star-laden cast, masterly music and show-stopping choreography; read on for our Follies review at the National Theatre

Words Pendle Harte
Photography Johan Persson

When every single member of the Olivier’s audience is standing up and whooping, the message is clear. Dominic Cooke’s new theatre production of Follies is a huge success on multiple counts. The music is wonderful, the dancing a delight, the costumes, staging and choreography all masterly, while the message remains at heart quite dark, certainly for a musical.

We open in a derelict theatre, once home to Weismann’s Follies, which is hosting a reunion on the eve of the building’s destruction. Ageing former showgirls arrive and are presented with sashes announcing their vintages; it’s 1971 and the oldest of  the dancers performed in 1918. Gradually it becomes clear – to us – that the young dancers among them are in fact shadow versions of their former selves, their presence in each other’s worlds a reminder of how things have changed. So Imelda Staunton’s Sally Durant and her alter-ego Alex Young as Young Sally are (mostly) invisible to each other as the show goes on to explore the behind-the-scenes realities, with interwoven themes of disappointment, jealousy, ego and age as the passing of time takes centre stage. It’s not so much a plot as a revisiting of past events, the mourning for former glories and endless marvelling at the follies of youth.

There’s lots of wordplay – especially with ‘folly’ – and the second half’s pastiche numbers are signposted ‘Ben’s Folly’ as the various delusions and disappointments come to light. In all, it’s not a cheerful message but there’s lots of joy to be found in the staging and food for thought throughout.

Follies will be broadcast by NT Live to cinemas in the UK and internationally on Thursday 16 November.
ntlive.nationaltheatre.org.uk

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