All Star Productions, who have been producing Sondheim on the London Fringe for almost five years, here turn their attention to one of his most divisive and controversial musicals, and create an evening of intimacy and nostalgia. Undaunted by the physical restrictions of the Olde Rose and Crown, the stage is thronged with more than two dozen performers, and refuses to elide a moment of Sondheim’s intended spectacle, even down to the full-cast dance numbers which shook the boards of the tiny theatre.
Follies takes place at the first and last reunion of the “Weismann Girls”: song and dance performers in a once bustling Broadway theatre, who return to its faded auditorium for one final evening of reminiscing before it is ploughed under and replaced with a car park. Memories of past numbers and half-remembered incidents flow through the crowd, and the once beautiful are haunted by their smiling counterparts from a bygone era. At the centre of this are two couples, the high-flying Ben and Phyllis, and middle-class family man Buddy and his frustrated wife Sally, who has never come to terms with her thwarted passion for Ben. Their story becomes the touchstone for Sondheim’s central theme of the inescapability of past decisions, and his punning use of the naïve ‘Follies’ to represent the betrayed naivety of his characters.
The action time-bends between the increasingly drunken and bitter recriminations of the party, and the glitz and glamour of the past. Songs are presented by past and present incarnations in unison, and the choreography creates constant, stinging reflections between age and youth, hope and hopelessness. Follies is Sondheim’s musical of the memory, and it is as much about the frail recollections of its protagonists as the theatrical history which provide its aesthetic and musical cues.
Director Tim McArthur has assembled an often stunning cast, with convincing twinning of older and younger actors, and an ensemble which is never less than supportive and engaging. The addition of Mark Hutchinson to the cast is a real coup for the company, and his Buddy performs James Goldman’s book as convincingly as Sondheim’s score. Frank Loman is similarly impressive as Ben, yet it is Julie Ross as Phyllis and Maggie Robson as Sally who dominate the production. Ross’s brittle assumed rigidity, her tremendous poise and restraint inhabit the role with fearsome precision; and Robson’s bittersweet and trembling Sally, who has been driven almost to madness by frustrated love, is heartbreaking and highly nuanced. ‘In Buddy’s Eyes’ and ‘Too Many Mornings’ were standout moments, and the mental fragility Robson invoked created real pathos.
The supporting cast were also highly commendable, with strong renditions of ‘Broadway Baby’ by Ellen Verenieks (Hattie) and One More Kiss by Rachel Dobell and Jenny-Marie Cooper (Heidi and Young Heidi). The show was stolen, as one suspects it usually is, by Carlotta’s rousing and darkly comic ‘I’m Still Here’, where April Nicholoson seems to channel the spirit of Dolores Grey, with her defiant declaration “God knows at least I was there: and I’m here!”.
Follies is a musical much beloved of the hardcore Sondheim crowd, and this production offered a rare opportunity to enjoy its glamour and tragedy up close, where you could see the tears well in the corners of the aging starlets’ eyes. For my money, it is not one of Sondheim’s strongest musicals, either in terms of its lyrics or its music, the former of which lack the comedy and the latter the variety which we have come to expect of his work. Aaron Clingham has done an excellent job of directing the score for four musicians, who perform its numbers in an effectively stripped-down chamber style. More attention to the moments of humour within the lyrics could, however, provide the production with greater satirical bite than it currently possesses. When the show concludes with the perfectly judged ‘Live, Laugh, Love’, it is a sudden reminder of just how sharp and incisive Sondheim can be when directed with a close attention to his sophisticated wit as well as emotional power. Nevertheless, for those who already love Follies, or who are looking for a thoroughly well-produced musical on the London Fringe, All Star Productions make the long journey up the Victoria line thoroughly worth the effort.
Follies is playing at the Olde Rose and Crown Theatre Pub until 12th November. For more information and to book tickets see the All Star Productions website here.