National Theatre, 2nd November 2017
I now think I might be mistaken in my general aversion to musical theatre. I think the problem may be that I just haven’t seen enough Sondheim. You can see from all the proper reviews and audience feedback just how well this production has gone down. Believe it. This is outstanding. Worth the thirty year wait And this from someone who is never happier than when he is locked up with 20 other punters above a pub seeing some obscure piece of European metaphysical miserabilism. So you can trust me on this.
There are a handful of tickets left. Or you can go with the Friday Rush or Day Tickets approach. If you can bear to do this, it will be worth it. This obviously cost a bomb to stage, so who knows if it will transfer, though patently it deserves too. If all else fails get to the cinema on 16th November when the performance will be screened live. Anyway, with a bit of luck, you are not a pompous, prejudiced berk like me and you will have already seen it.
Why so gushing? Design yes, courtesy of the gifted Vicki Mortimer, with her half=demolished theatre come to life on stage. The Olivier stage works best when the revolve is gainfully employed and when there is a hulking piece of stuff in the middle playing its part, as it does here. Direction yes. As others have remarked it is hard to believe this is Dominic Cooke’s first musical. Mind you, most everything he has done before, notably at the Royal Court, has turned to gold. This catapults him right to the top of the directorial league. The 21 piece orchestra, conducted by Nigel Lilley, the musical supervision of Nicholas Skilbeck, the orchestration of Jonathan Tunick and Josh Clayton and the outstanding choreography of Bill Deamer, especially in the tap routines; all combine seamlessly. Lighting and costumes are also to die for. Neon, washes, spotlights, feathers, sequins, heels, frocks, wigs, dickie bows, acres of face slap. Glam and glitz all present, correct and suitably superficial as the tale demands.
The 37 strong cast (bigger than a Premiership squad) is uniformly marvellous. The four leads garner most of the plaudits. Watching Imelda Staunton’s Sally, her girlish excitement as she is reunited with paramour Ben turning to bitter disappointment as reality bites, is about as good as acting gets. This is Imelda Staunton though so expect no less. Her rendition of “Losing My Mind” is spine tinglingly raw. Janie Dee as Phyllis, all disdainful bitterness, matches her. A trail of bile follows her round the stage. It all comes flooding out in the contemptuous “Could I Leave You”. Philip Quast is the big male beast of proper musical theatre and his Ben Stone is, to use another cliche, commanding. Watching him finally fall to pieces in the “Live, Laugh, Love” is as moving as theatre gets. Poor old Ben; money and status can’t buy you love or happiness. In my book, Buddy is the trickiest character to pull off, but not for Peter Forbes, who nails Buddy’s solipsistic refusal to take responsibility, preferring to play the fool, as he does in the “God Why Don’t You Love Me Blues”.
The younger ghostly doppelgangers (Fred Haig, Zizi Strallen, Alex Young and Adam Rhys-Charles) are perfectly matched, to each other and their mature selfs, and move effortlessly round the set. Who else? Tracie Bennett’s Carlotta, as she belts out “I’m Still Here”, even though no-one is listening, makes you want to punch the air. Operatic soprano Josephine Barstow’s duet with her younger Heidi self, play by Alison Langer, is another highlight. As, unsurprisingly, is Di Botcher as besuited Hattie in “Broadway Baby”. There are some other mind-blowing set pieces. The routine where the ladies intertwine with their sequinned and head-dressed younger selves is a highlight, as are the entrances early on down the fire escape stairs. The pastiche/parody routines are jaw dropping, camply serious, not seriously camp.
Here’s the thing though. All this stuff wouldn’t work for me if there weren’t real characters inside all the song and dance stuff and if the text and lyrics didn’t illuminate the characters. I can see that, at its heart, the story of a reunion of the showgirl cast and creator of an interwar Follies review is pretty flimsy. And that the idea of regret over lives lived and not lived, is hardly ground-breaking dramatic material. And bugger all happens. But I cared so much for these people.
And I think that even in the absence of a more upbeat ending as was apparently the case in the 1987 revival, this is still perversely an uplifting piece of theatre. And not just because of the tunes, though the way Sondheim’s music wraps its way around his lyrics, particularly into and out of the big songs, is a wonder to the ears. He just seems to perfectly capture not just the cadence of the words but also the emotions of the characters. No, the reason I came out all puffed up after this is because I think Sondheim, and writer James Goldman, tell us that all of this agonising over what might have been, which is basically what our four leads spend 2 hours bemoaning, is ultimately pointless. You only have one life. It will be full of disappointment and missed opportunities. But you might as well try and be happy with what you have. I appreciate this homily is f*ck all use if you don’t have the basics, or if your relationship threatens your physical or mental well being, but I can only describe what I think I saw and heard. There are plenty of other bright sparks, starting with that Buddha chap, who would agree that the best thing to do is ditch the constant yearning for something better. Dump the act: be yourself.
So there you have it. Redemption for Rufus Norris, AD at the NT, after the string of misses, (not as bad as some think in my book), on the Olivier stage this season. A triumphant revival of a marvellous piece of theatre where no-one, literally, puts a foot wrong. I am still smiling a week later. Loved it. No idea what the original audiences in 1971 Broadway were thinking when they failed to turn this into a monster hit.