Follies, National Theatre, London ★★★½

Reviewed for The Reviews Hub:

The very name is laden with double meaning. Primarily, of course, the title of Stephen Sondheim’s musical about a reunion of variety performers is a reference to the Ziegfeld Follies, whose dancers would glide down stately staircases in lavish costumes designed to show off a very particular idea of feminine beauty. It is also a reference to mistakes, to acts made with a particular lack of sense.

This double meaning drives the main story, as two former dancers (Imelda Staunton and Janie Dee) attend the reunion even as their marriages are falling apart thanks to decisions and impulses that first surfaced decades before. It really doesn’t need promenading troubadours carrying banners proclaiming slogans such as “The Folly of Youth” through the Loveland sequence that makes up the final third of the National’s latest revival.

Initially, the cavernous Olivier stage – always the most perplexing of venues to fill – feels like the ideal space to represent the crumbling Broadway theatre whose imminent demolition has triggered a grand reunion in its ruins. As the brick walls of Vicki Mortimer’s set design rotate and slide, onstage and offstage blur in ways that parallel the inability of the dancers to let go of their former careers.

Throughout the space, younger versions of the dancers haunt the stage, the slow pace of the ornate Ziegfeldian strut contributing to their ghost-like state. And while the gimmick soon palls, it is really just an extension of Sondheim and book writer James Goldman’s main conceit, that Staunton and Dee’s characters and their husbands (Philip Quast and Peter Forbes) are simultaneously reliving, held back by and trying to escape their younger selves.

And it is when this production reaches the emotional climax of this main story, the set receding as far back as the Olivier wings will allow, that the damaging intensity and intimacy of the foursome’s intertwined feelings has so much less impact than it should. Staunton, in particular, works her hardest to make her madness and despair fill the Olivier, but the space works against all the principals at their key emotional moment.

But of course, what the space does allow for are some grandstanding musical numbers, especially those pastiching Broadways in its inter-war heyday. A rotating line of tap dancers never fails to lift the heart, as with the number ‘Who’s That Woman?’ in which the former dancers link arms with their junior counterparts.

And while the aforementioned Loveland sequence, which sees each principal character’s dilemma reiterated in a series of Broadway show numbers, is overlong and narratively redundant, Janie Dee’s exuberance during The Story of Lucy and Jessie is one of the tightest, most enjoyable, musical sequences in recent memory. Never less than excellent throughout, Bill Deamer’s choreography reaching its zenith during this number.

The rest of the reuniting dancers each get their own chance at a solo number – from Di Botcher’s great rendition of ‘Broadway Baby’ to Geraldine Fitzgerald’s Ah, Paris, a Porter-esque list number that is one of the show’s best stylistic parodies. Tracie Bennett’s Carlotta not only gets her own spotlight moment but also manages to steal many others thanks to the actress’s innate gift for comedy.

Ultimately, though, Follies simply struggles with a structure that reaches its emotional climax well before the end. The result is a play which never really feels as emotionally satisfying as intended, even though it excels visually from start to finish.

There’s a third meaning of folly, of course: a building constructed as a pastiche, and renowned for its ornamental beauty while lacking in other areas. In this, at least, the National has managed to provide a new level of subtext for the musical’s punning title.