Perhaps it needed a director who doesn’t usually direct musicals to bring this lesser performed Sondheim musical to life, ghosts and all. Former Royal Court artistic director, Dominic Cooke triumphs at the National with Follies, a sophisticated study of the disappointments of growing up, rich with musical numbers that might just as well be monologues.

It’s 1971 and the showgirls who used to dance in feathered headdresses and sequins at the Follies have been invited back for a reunion. Forty years have passed and they gather in the crumbling theatre for a final night of glamour. Failed marriages, painful and nostalgic memories take centre stage as the cast play out their unfinished stories.

Vicki Mortimer’s set is stunning in it’s vast sepia tones, with seemingly endless faded spaces haunted by the large cast in dazzling costumes. And it is an extraordinary cast to bring together. Sondheim’s female parts are complex and delicious to play, with astringent wit and belting finale’s, I imagine Imelda Staunton, Janie Dee and Tracie Bennett jumped at the chance. It only takes one killer Sondheim number to bring the house down, and Tracie Bennett does just that with a breath-taking interpretation of ‘I’m still here’ as does Dee with the acerbic but desperate, ‘Could I leave you.’

Cooke’s production is so successful, it’s hard to believe no one’s tried to stage it since the London premiere in 1987, particularly given how many stand-out character songs it contains. But it’s a show of many parts and potentially a puzzle to stage. At times it’s almost surreal as the ghosts of their younger selves who inhabit every scene are silent but active protagonists in the drama. With subtle characterisation, we are able to see the protagonists look backwards and forwards at the same time, sometimes speaking to their younger selves who in turn react to their older incarnation. It feels like an experiment, in a good way. Then there’s the substantial homage to vaudeville of a bygone era in the long final sequence, an opulent treat for old school musical aficianado’s but a bit of a mystery to newcomers to the genre.

Follies still feels exciting and it’s a rare treat to see this kind of stellar cast brought together. There’s no doubt there’s a huge audience for Cooke’s stunning revival, and we were on our feet by the end of the night. With NT live broadcasting to Cinemas in the UK and internationally on Thursday 16th November, now there’s a chance for so many more to enjoy it.
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