For the first time, Stephen Sondheim’s legendary musical Follies is being staged at the National Theatre. Created by Sondheim and bookwriter James Goldman, Follies premiered in 1971 and is now being revived at the Olivier. Directed by Dominic Cooke, the musical dazzles with a cast of thirty-seven and an orchestra of twenty-one, the leading showgirls played by Tracie Bennett, Janie Dee and Imelda Staunton. Including such classics as Broadway Baby, I’m Still Here and Losing My Mind, this vaudeville-style production glimmers and gleams with the flavours of Manhattan’s Theater District.

It is New York and the year is 1971. Thirty years after their final performance, The Weismann’s Follies reunite in a dilapidated Broadway theatre. It is here that the musical revue had played between the wars, but now their esteemed venue is scheduled for demolition. They have only until tomorrow, and so the past performers gather to drink, sing, and celebrate. The story of two unhappy marriages stain old numbers, and at times the showgirls are accompanied by the ghosts of their former selves. The event calls both past and present to stand side-by-side, and together they stare into the face of change.

Crumbling brickwork cocoons a perfect heap of faded red velvet chairs. Rubble spills in the rear, inching towards a wall in the middle of the stage, now split in two. A fire escape clings to one edge, rusting radiators and a wooden desk making its home in the other. Held together by a blinking signpost: ‘Weismann’s Follies – Glorifying the American Girl’, the sections of stone stand tall on a revolving platform. Dead and alive, Vicki Mortimer’s design becomes an impressive guardian of yesterday and tomorrow, animated by the orchestra that sit at the heels of the action.

Showgirls emerge, ghosts dressed in spangled silver dresses and dripping in sequins. Feathers splash, elegant against ornate headdresses that shiver extravagantly in the shadows. The men are dapper in black tuxedos, and are doused in pastel pink and purple lighting – bruises of the past, healing. The lights yellow, and the stage swells with the party. Cries of ‘Darling!’ can be heard above silky saxophones and clarinets, their symphony guiding the dialogue and scene changes with grace. Gooey American accents escape from mouths with smiles stretched wide, and conversations hide in round eyes and backward glances. Characters split into present and past versions of themselves, and open wounds that were sustained during the folly of youth. The young watch their aged selves with caution and curiosity, and nostalgia brings lost love to the surface.

As Sally Durant Plummer, Staunton is sublime. Fast-talking and eager, her delightful nature is soon broken by an alarming adoration for Benjamin Stone ( Philip Quast), straining the relationship with her husband Buddy (Peter Forbes). Dee is excellent as Phyllis Rogers Stone, whose quick wit seduces and stuns in equal measure, and the two execute Bill Deamer’s faultless choreography with style. Tap shoes click on the surface of drunken mistakes, and musical numbers create a visual feast so filling that one prays for the final course never to arrive.

Now creased with time, a fear of getting old is shattered by Josephine Barstow’s rendition of One Last Kiss, her voice calling the hairs on the back of the neck to stand to attention. In the end, the past acts as a tonic as well as a poison, but it is the final number that encapsulates the Follies experience: Live, Laugh, and Love.

Follies is playing at the National Theatre until January 3.

Photo: Johan Persson