Review - Follies returns to the National Theatre starring Joanna Riding and Janie Dee

Mark Shenton
Mark Shenton

Stephen Sondheim and James Goldman's 1971 Broadway musical yields new emotions, textures and terrors with each repeated viewing or production. Nostalgia, as the old saying goes, isn't what it used to be. But Follies is a show about the perils of living in the past that comes alive in the present, and reminds us - like Samuel Beckett's great work of existential terror Waiting for Godot or Chekhov's Uncle Vanya - that we have to simply face the cold light of reality and carry on. Yes, the show is really that great; like those plays, it is a defining masterpiece in modern theatre.

Each production adds its own layer of nostalgia to the ones that have come before; and in this case, of a cast that came before when this one was first premiered at National in 2017. That has already created its own ghosts and shadows, as we now remember actors who've now left the show - most notably, Imelda Staunton and Philip Quast, who previously played Sally and Ben, a couple who once courted each other but married Buddy and Phyllis respectively instead - and enjoy their successors.

Joanna Riding - herself a veteran of this Olivier stage, where she previously starred in Carousel, Sondheim's A Little Night Music and Guys and Dolls in the 1990s (the latter alongside Staunton) - has less nervous energy but a more wide-eyed sense of the grasping need at trying, and failing, one last time to get what she always thought she wanted, namely Ben. She doesn't seem quite as unhinged - but she's also terrifying and terrific.

Alexander Hanson is more emotionally muted than Quast; that's partly because he has less natural charisma. He's punching above his weight to secure the attentions of either Phyllis (who he actually married) or Sally, but it shifts the focus onto them: what need is he answering in them?

Janie Dee, remaining as Phyllis, now reveals more thrilling shades of her brittle, bitter persona underneath the extraordinary glamour she exudes; there's real anger - and defiance - in her rendition of the showstopping "Could I Leave You?" in which she calculates and itemises her own dissatisfaction with her marriage.

And Peter Forbes, returning as Buddy, is also utterly wonderful as he loyally sticks with a wife who loves someone else, and made his own accommodations with his sense of misery.

A Chekhovian pallor of lives not lived hangs over all four principals - and it is heartbreakingly contrasted with versions of their younger selves, thirty years earlier, who watch and observe what they've become (a stunning quartet of young performers Ian McIntosh, Christine Tucker, Harry Hepple and Gemma Sutton). That constant pull between the past and present defines both James Goldman's wonderful impressionistic book and Dominic Cooke's haunting production, with its sets by Vicki Mortimer, lighting by Paule Constable and above all pitch-perfect period choreography by Bill Deamer.

There's so much to relish in this production that I could name every single actor, but I'll stop at one more newcomer to the 2018 cast, Claire Moore who is absolutely miraculous as Hattie Walker. She sings "Broadway Baby", one of the show's most famous songs, as if her life depended on it. It's the distillation of a performer's one-time yearning for the bright lights of Broadway, sung from the reality of what her life has come; and it sums up perfectly the show's overwhelming and powerful contrast between past and present.

Follies is, and remains, simply phenomenal.

Follies is at the National Theatre until 11th May.

Photo credit: Johan Persson

Originally published on

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