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Five Things You Should Know About Follies

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1.    Let’s cut to the chase: Follies contains some of the greatest performances I’ve ever seen in a musical.

It features Stephen Sondheim veterans Philip Quast, Imelda Staunton and Janie Dee. Most incredible of all, the way this sparkly ensemble revisit their former lives from 30 years ago to when they first met while working as Follies dancers. The ghosts of the past send shivers up your spine. Also, Tracie Bennett in particular steals the show on a few occasions in a hall of mirrors for all shades of misery

2.    With a near 30-year history and a world-class reputation, Sondheim shows are no strangers to the National Theatre (Judi Dench appeared in ‘A Little Night Music’ in the Olivier, 1995 and Philip Quast in ‘Sunday in the Park With George’ in the Lyttelton Theatre, 1990 etc, etc and so on).

It’s hard to avoid the fact that most of Follies’ action takes place on a stage revolve resembling a merry-go-round in West Side Story. The beauty of this show lies in the precision that draws the multi-layered elements together.

3.    There are incredibly few directors who could carry off at least three quarters of this show. Dominic Cooke’s production for the National Theatre has kept the songs in the faithful style – the orchestra are sublime – but when Imelda delivers a refreshingly devastating low-key version of ‘Losing My Mind’, it’s the night’s highlight. A haunting exploration of character.

This is an inventively staged production with a cast and the arrangements are of a phenomenally high standard. As well as being expertly written the majority of these songs are also skilfully structured and only serve to reaffirm Sondheim’s Godlike genius.

 

4.    The choreography itself is beautiful, reflecting the sorrow, torment and human resilience in both the music and the performances. Everything slots perfectly into place in this magnificent evocation of showbiz. Sweeping across the stage are buckets of Swarovski crystals, sashes, sequined frocks and outfits that reel you in from start to finish.

This is the first time Dominic Cooke has directed a musical. Luckily, there’s a clarity of vision that’s practically unrivalled in the current musical theatre scene. Follies feels effortlessly enchanting.

5.    Vicky Mortimer’s show-making set and costume design uses a crumbling theatre on a revolving set to remind us how the characters’ lives are confined and ravaged by theatre; Bill Dreamer’s vivid choreography, deserves a mention again, his work with ‘Loveland’ pays hymn to the showbiz past; and the orchestra has a glorious, brassy ring.

The production’s centrepiece – to these eyes, anyway – is ‘I’m Still Here’, a track for which Apple Music single song repeat function could well have been invented. A dazzle to watch. 

But the show is not perfect and I can see people’s concerns about Imelda’s suitability as a ‘Showgirl’ or that her vocals may be underpowered. They are missing the point; these things add to the charm of the production. The no interval thing is a bit crap….

Nevertheless, nothing is left to chance here, folks.

I make that a considered, authoritative and concrete 9/10. Also: Looks like my work here is done. Time to go to the pub.

Follies runs in the Olivier Theatre at the National until 3 January.

‘FYI’ Follies will be broadcast by NT Live to cinemas in the UK and internationally on Thursday 16 November.

My Theatre Grudge: Standing ovations

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If you do want to stand up, know that your final decision will be definitive and 100% correct. Authentic, voluntary, high spirited standing ovations are truly uncommon things.”

Standing ovations are dished out like cocktail sausages. That’s right ladies and gentlemen. We are living in an era where hundreds of reasonably sensible people are falling over each other to leap to their feet and clap at the drop of a hat. Since when did ovations become so unavoidable?  Is it because we have spent so much on a ticket? So often audiences appear fulfilled by work that is “not terrible” or that “could have been worse”. And then they get up on their feet and applaud. Very rarely I do too, credit where its due etc.

If you are one of these people, how often do you mean it? Would you stand up if the “posh people” around you didn’t, but the work you’d just seen had changed the very fibre of your existence? Because that is when you should get up and show your appreciation. If you do want to stand up – get up and know that your final decision will be definitive and 100% correct. Authentic, voluntary, high-spirited standing ovations are truly uncommon things.

We’ve all been in an auditorium where folk bounce up and down like a Jack in a box when it isn’t earned. There is a lot to be said about mawkishness around standing ovations.

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Sunset Boulevard has got people up and out of their seats thanks to Glenn Close making sure the revival of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s ’50s noir-inspired musical was a triumph. Audiences gave a standing ovation the second she walked on the stage and before she’d sung a note. But this kind of ovation isn’t entirely for her performance but for who she is, her bona fide celebrity glamour and what she embodies. (I stood up too.)

I watched GYPSY at Chichester Festival Theatre and was all too happy to participate in a standing ovation for Imelda Staunton mid-song. It felt natural and I did so of my own free will. It was an almost instinctive experience whereby the entire audience spontaneously combusted. The audience, briefly, matched the show.

A standing ovation is a public situation, so I suppose is open to manipulation such as, for instance on Press Nights where family, friends and supporters gather to show considerable support for a production. Or in big shows like Bend it Like Beckham or Mamma Mia where the false-ending is cynically engineered to achieve a standing ovation from the people in the stalls. In any case, a standing ovation that has simply become part of convention is basically futile.

As a general rule I would suggest that you stand up and clap when someone delivers the goods (‘the goods’ being at least six exciting moments per show, usually more) Be open to life itself, and the surprises of life. Standing ovations have to catch us by surprise, when we are the least looking for them. So, half-hearted ovations are, in the very purest sense, a load of old nonsense. And there, it would seem, we have it.

Note:  Article to be published in UK theatre Magazine- May 2016