Review: Follies / Stephen Sondheim / National Theatre

Sondheim’s 1971 musical about a showgirl reunion in the remains of a theatre scheduled for demolition is a rich and complex story. The NT’s highly-praised production is a corker.

It’s also a show that demands considerable resources. It shines when design and stagecraft are given equal billing with the music. Many well-intentioned semi-staged productions have left me wanting. But the National Theatre’s 2017 production has resource, talent, and skills in abundance, something that guarantees it a place in the show’s history.

Imelda Stanton did what Imelda Staunton does best: agony plain to see, bottled-up bitterness, and crushing self-denial. I wasn’t entirely convinced by Losing My Mind. There were moments when I felt as though she was holding something back, when I wanted her to go full-throttle-bitter-and-twisted. But,

Opposite Staunton’s often skittish Sally Durant was Peter Quast’s silky-voice Benjamin Stone, a haplessly seductive man. Quast deployed a flawless tone in Too Many Mornings reminiscent of George Hearne just with the raspy edges smoothed out a bit.

Tracie Bennett’s depiction of Carlotta Campion in I’m Still Here channelled the queen of drink-addled characterisations Elaine Stricht, but went further to make the character her own, bringing out a hard-edged defiance and making it something to aspire to. Gritty and dark, Bennett sharpened the knife and twisted it slowly, giving the climax more menace than the unbridled sass I’d previously been used to. A delight.

Josephine Barstow and Alison Langer’s remarkable duet One More Kiss was the crowning achievement – a telling contrast of young and old voices which when combined in the final verse made for a magical creation.

A handful of Sondheim newcomers (those whose entry point has been Disney’s Into the Woods) berate the shows for being overly long. And as rich and satisfying a production as this was, there were moments when I felt like I was flagging (in particular during the sequence of follies towards the end).

I suspect that was down to the lack of an interval, meaning the two hour fifteen minute show felt like a bit of a marathon – a tougher-than-normal ask that paradoxically exposed those moments when the plot appears needs tightening.

But what kept things moving the energy in the music, powered by a nimble twenty-piece band whose precision epitomised the painstaking attention to detail every Sondheim fan demands.

This was a remarkable performance. No surprises – that’s what everybody’s been saying. And whilst you’ll probably be scanning for the required negativity in order for the review to appear ‘impartial’, the fact is there is nothing bad to say about it.

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