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Stephen Sondheim’s ‘Follies’ returns to the National Theatre – Review

"The best-ever production of Stephen Sondheim’s 'Follies' just got even better."

By Will Stroude

Words: Simon Button

Returning to the National Theatre after its feted 2017 run, the best-ever production of Stephen Sondheim’s Follies just got even better. The reason: Joanna Riding.

Replacing Imelda Staunton as ex-showgirl Sally Durant, she is much more suited to the role. Imelda was so brilliant in Sweeney Todd and Gypsy but, best suited to playing battleaxes, she seemed miscast as the emotionally frail Sally. You never worried for her the way you do for Joanna’s Sally – who starts out as girlishly excited then, married to salesman Buddy but in love with politician Ben, begins to unravel.

Staunton sang the hell out of Sally’s big ‘Losing My Mind’ number but Riding’s take on it is devastating as she seems to crumple before our very eyes.

Photo: Johan Persson

Like Company, Follies is one of Sondheim’s plotless musicals. Former chorus girls reunite at the Broadway theatre where they performed in the Weismann Follies 30 years before to dance down memory lane and reflect on how their lives have turned out – and that’s pretty much it plotwise. 

But the beauty of the show, as composed by Sondheim and scripted by James Goldman, is in its witty, wistful rumination on the passing of time and the gorgeousness of its score, which imbues a series of pastiches with poignancy and pizzazz.

And the genius of Dominic Cooke’s production is how he has the former showgirls and their guys interacting with, and sometimes singing directly to, their younger selves in a setting that’s crumbling all around them as a metaphor for glamour that’s faded and lives that are falling apart.

Photo: Johan Persson

The men are considerably less interesting than the ladies and thus the gals get all the best numbers. Janie Dee hoofs it up a storm as the bitchy and brittle Phyllis, Claire Moore is an adorable ‘Broadway Baby’, Tracie Bennett’s ‘I’m Still Here’ is staggeringly good and Dawn Hope leads them all in a showstopping ‘Who’s That Woman?’ tap dance that’s as good as musical theatre gets.

Rating: 5/5

Follies is at the National Theatre until 11 May 2019. For great deals on tickets and shows click here.