Stephen Sondheim's landmark musical makes a welcome return to London after a fifteen year absence. The Royal Festival Hall has apparently never hosted anything quite of this ilk before and it rises to the challenge with aplomb, its spacious stage ideal in representing a Broadway theatre now facing imminent demolition. When Follies first appeared, its sheer scale was unprecedented and it still makes a stunning spectacle as past and present intermingle on the occasion of a bittersweet reunion for former members of the chorus.
Named both for the wistful personal recollections that form the musical's foundations and more literally for the Ziegfeld Follies that were a byword for glamour, Sondheim's show follows the fortunes of two specific couples who find themselves confronting the ghosts of their former selves as they struggle to accept the present and stop chasing elusive, often distorted pipedreams. Ben was once smitten with Sally but married Phyllis. Sally loved Ben but, rejected by him, eventually married the stalwart Buddy. Decades on their lives are falling apart, each emotionally estranged from their partner they bewail their present lives and look back at a past cloaked in nostalgia.
The first half is a general lament to lost youth as various members of the cast sing of glory days and dazzling lives now just fragrant memories. The songs vary in quality and execution but when someone like Joan Savage belts out the showstopper "Broadway Baby" with gusto and consummate class, for a few minutes the sheer magic of the musical is palpable. The show's concluding section sees the four main characters each given their own plaintive melody and it's here that Kathryn Evans's engaging Sally comes into her own, streets ahead of her fellow leads in terms of conviction. It's good to see the multi-talented Henry Goodman back in town, but the role of Buddy doesn't really offer the ideal scope for his talents though he certainly injects the role with mercurial energy. David Durham's forceful Ben and Louise Gold's haughty Phyllis are less effective, though some of the ensemble are excellent, particularly Emma Clifford's sharply defined young Sally.
Follies may not always glitter and it's certainly an occasion where plot takes a definite backstage role, but the wit and intelligence of its lyrics & music, here generally performed with panache, ultimately carries the show to triumph.
CHARLES SPENCER for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "Venue cramps the style of a flawed masterpiece...uninspired production." NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "Paul Kerryson's vulgar production is too pallidly acted and sung to disguise the fact that James Goldman's book suffers from severe plot deficiency and under-development." He goes on to say, "Follies strikes me as a mixed musical blessing, but a big blessing none the less." JONATHAN MYERSON for THE INDEPENDENT says, "Camp and catty musical makes up for its poor story." IAN JOHNS for THE TIMES says, "Kerryson’s production is a mixed bag of the poignant and the pallid which suggests that Follies may still be a work in progress." MADDY COSTA for THE GUARDIAN says, "Sondheim's songs provide most of the evening's pleasures...But as the spectacle grows in extravagance, Kerryson's production seems all the more hollow at heart."
External links to full reviews from newspapers