The orchestra strikes up as a spotlight illuminates a single befeathered show girl from a bygone age. Another smiling girl appears on the otherwise dark stage, and then another, and another. As soon as the anticipation becomes almost too much to bear, these intriguing figures retreat back into the shadows. The spell is broken, and the present intrudes. It’s 1971 and a group of former show girls are having a reunion for the first time in 30 years. They are the Weismann Follies —based on Siegfeld’s famous girls, of course— and they’re back in their old, soon-to-be-demolished theatre for one night only. Two couples are at the centre of Stephen Sondheim’s Follies (directed by Dominic Cooke): Sally (Imelda Staunton) and Buddy (Peter Forbes), and Phyllis (Janie Dee) and Ben (Philip Quast).
There’s some entertainingly uncomfortable carousing as the attendees’ past shadows —the glamorous show girls from the opening number— float around and watch these future incarnations making awkward small talk. It doesn’t take very long for the four leads’ flimsy façades of cheeriness to fall away and for their true motivations to come to light. ‘One makes bargains with one’s life,’ Phyllis remarks, and that’s enough to drive it home: This is not going to be a fun reunion.
Sally reveals that she’s still in love with Ben —an admission that doesn’t seem to surprise Phyllis in the slightest. Staunton’s performance doesn’t so much reveal a woman’s descent into madness as it simply tugs the curtain away and allows the audience to see Sally already having arrived at her most vulnerable and desperate state. The spectacle is somewhat overwhelming. If you’re going through any kind of emotional turmoil at the moment, consider blocking your ears when Staunton breaks into ‘In Buddy’s Eyes’. The sheer heartbreak conjured by this number is almost too much to bear. Staunton lands the tricky final note deftly.
Quast brings a lot of gravitas to Ben, who is essentially a very unhappy man still somehow managing to hold his high-flying life together. Ben’s imposing aura dissipates almost without warning as the evening’s events slip out of his control. In ‘The Road You Didn’t Take’, Quast gives tender expression to the show’s preoccupation with regret. Quast and Staunton’s rendition of ‘Too Many Mornings’ is striking during the final, tender bars, as this quieter moment seems to allow the actors to communicate a lot more of their characters’ tragic realities than the preceding minutes of turmoil do. It must be noted that the sound recording on this broadcast leaves something to be desired. The balance between orchestra and vocalists is never perfect, and places the singers at an unfortunate disadvantage. (This might explain why the more piano moments of some songs seem so effective, as one is then finally able to hear lyrics and emotion without having to strain.)
Forbes cuts a somewhat comic (yet underlyingly sinister) figure as Sally’s philandering husband Buddy. Despite the character’s off-putting brashness, Forbes’s sensitive version of ‘The Right Girl’ will have you rooting for the itinerant salesman to start making better life decisions immediately.
Janie Dee in the role of the acerbic Phyllis is perfect casting if that mythical creature’s ever existed. It’s impossible not to marvel at Phyllis’s spectacular bitterness and overwhelming sang-froid as she attempts to navigate her husband’s infidelities and her general sense of disappointment at her own life. Dee practically spits venom at Ben during her performance of ‘Could I Leave You’, and her effortlessly piercing glares are enough to make grown adults cower. Still, her performance is deeply nuanced, and it’s impossible not to see Phyllis’s deep hurt behind Dee’s expertly sneering expressions.
As for the supporting cast, it has to be said they’re practically worth the price of admission on their own. Tracie Bennett delivers a warm, moving interpretation of ‘I’m Still Here’. At turns comic, defiant, and determined, her vocal performance is tightly controlled and technically perfect. ‘Broadway Baby’ is another clear highlight, with Di Botcher giving it all she has. Her powerful voice and expressive face bring just the right kind of energy to this number. Dawn Hope’s voice shows its magnificent capabilities in ‘Who’s That Woman?’. The past company of show girls dazzle in their spectacular costumes during this number, and the present-day show girls deliver a very uplifting choreography, with some delightfully comedic moments courtesy of Bennett. Alex Young, who plays Sally’s past self, does a marvellous job of imitating Staunton’s cadence, and her performance goes a long way when it comes to endearing Sally to the audience. Throughout the show, the mesmerising presence of the Follies of years past, always lurking half in the shadows, at times almost embodying a kind of metaphysical threat to the present-day party-goers, delivers a body blow to the audience every time one of the beautiful young figures registers a heartrending sense of disappointment in what their lives would become.
The National Theatre’s Follies is visually perfect, with the kind of colour palette and set design (courtesy of Vicki Mortimer) most creative teams could only dream of, and a stellar cast more than capable of delivering the level of performance required to draw the audience into the characters’ world of bitter regret and missed opportunities.
Follies is part of the current National Theatre Live season, and can be seen at Cinema Nouveau at the V&A Waterfront on the 18th, 21st, and 22nd of February. Tickets are available at www.sterkinekor.co.za. Theatre lovers will also have an opportunity to see it at The Fugard Theatre on 17 June 2018, with tickets available through Computicket.