Stephen Sondheim and James Goldman's 1971 Broadway masterwork Follies is a literally overwhelming experience. I cried from virtually the beginning to the haunting end of this evocative portrait of the end of an era for a once-fabled New York theatre, on the eve of being torn down to make way for an office building, as a final reunion is held on its crumbling stage for the chorus girls and featured acts that once appeared in Follies revue shows there.
It's a show rooted in performance and the stage - but that is only a backdrop for its portrait of the faltering relationships being played out by its two lead couples, who originally met when the two girls were dancers and the boys were trainee lawyers and devoted stage door Johnny's, "waiting around for the girls upstairs."
Now 30 years later, Ben is a big wig political figurehead, who has recently left a post at the UN, while his wife Phyllis is a Manhattan sophisticate, but there are clear tensions in their childless marriage. Meanwhile, Buddy has had a busy, successful life as a travelling salesman, still in love with his own one-time chorus girl Sally, with two sons who have long fled the nest. But Sally still pines for Ben, who very nearly chose her over Phyllis. Tonight they will confront that unresolved history.
For a show that composer Stephen Sondheim has himself described as plotless, there's an awful lot going on in the vacillating tensions of the various relationships. But James Goldman's deceptively deep and finely textured book embeds them in the gorgeous framework of Sondheim's stunning set of songs that variously recall different eras of American popular music, yet many of which have become standards in their own right, from such defiant anthems to showbiz aspirations as "Broadway Baby" and to showbiz survival in "I'm Still Here".
The show is haunted (and the characters taunted) by the ghosts of the past -- literally so, as their younger selves appear beside them to remind them of who they were and once hoped to be, but have failed to fulfil their own life expectations for. It's a show full of showstoppers, like "Who's That Woman?" (the Mirror number)-- choreographed to co-ordinated perfection by Bill Deamer - but also heart-breakers.
Thirty years on from the original West End version of Follies that premiered at the Shaftesbury Theatre in 1987 - and 46 years on from its Broadway premiere at the Winter Garden in 1971 - there are even more layers and ghosts in play. It's a show about roads not taken and wrong choices made that evocatively lives in the present of the reunion it is set at. Director Dominic Cooke and choreographer Deamer happily make many good decisions on the roads they choose to play this journey on, bringing haunting echoes of the past into play along with the close-up emotions of the present.
The National's utterly spectacular production, with a large neon sign proclaiming Weismann's Follies to be about "glorifying the American girl", is also about glorifying the Broadway musical. Sondheim has regularly seen his shows reinvigorated at the National, with revelatory previous productions that have included the UK premiere of Sunday in the Park with George, and revivals of Sweeney Todd and A Little Night Music; this is the National's best musical revival since that famous Sweeney Todd.
It's impossible to name the brilliance of every one of the 37 actors in the cast, so let me just start with eight: the four leads and their four younger selves. Philip Quast, back on the London stage for an extended run for the first time since La Cage Aux Folles in 2009 (though he did two short runs in 2015 in Sweeney Todd at ENO and Waiting for Godot at the Barbican), is simply breathtaking, owning the stage with his resonant baritone and wounded performance as the troubled Ben. As his wife Phyllis, Janie Dee is pure class, with breathtaking timing on her acidic delivery of her ripostes and songs that include the biting "Could I Leave You". She is also simply sensational in dance, thrillingly combined in "The Story of Lucy and Jessie". Imelda Staunton's Sally is absolutely heartbreaking with "In Buddy's Eyes" and devastating in "Losing My Mind", while Peter Forbes as her husband Buddy has two showstoppers of his own, "The Right Girl" and "Buddy's Blues".
As their younger selves, Adam Rhys-Charles and Zizi Strallen (Ben/Phyllis), and Fred Haig and Alex Young (Buddy/Sally) are both affecting and effective foils to them, amplifying how far they've strayed from their original selves.
But there isn't a weak link in the entire company, which also includes the sublime luxury of Dame Josephine Barstow as the operatic Heidi Schiller (whose performance of "One More Kiss" is both wrenching and scintillating) and Tracie Bennett as Carlota Campion, whose defiant celebration of professional longevity in I'm Still Here could be autobiographical for the actress, too.
The seal is set on one of the best musicals in town by the brilliant onstage band of 21 musicians, brassily led by Nigel Lilley.
What the popular press said
"Played without a trace of camp and no interval, this is a production that perfectly captures the sustained emotional arc of Sondheim and Goldman’s musical. I came out admiring the show more than ever." - Michael Billington, The Guardian (five stars)
"I’d go straight back and see it again,” I heard a woman enthusing the moment she exited. You’d swear she’d lost her marbles... until, that is, you see for yourself. Unmissable, really." - Dominic Cavendish, The Telegraph
"This story about the past, ageing and the allure of glitter does absorb us but there are also times when it (whisper it) drags. Mostly, though, it is the cat’s pyjamas, with added frou-frou." - Ann Treneman, The Times (four stars)