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‘Follies’ review

Theatre, Musicals National Theatre , South Bank Monday May 6 2019 - Saturday May 11 2019
Recommended
5 out of 5 stars
4 out of 5 stars
(15user reviews)
 (© Johan Persson)
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© Johan Persson Claire Moore (Hattie)
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© Johan Persson
 (© Johan Persson)
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© Johan Persson  Alexander Hanson (Ben) and Janie Dee (Phyllis)
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© Johan Persson Peter Forbes (Buddy), Billy Boyle (Theodore) and Bruce Graham (Roscoe)
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© Johan Persson Dawn Hope (Stella) and the company 
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© Johan Persson
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© Johan Persson Aimee Hodnett (Young Sandra), Vanessa Fisher (Young Stella), Gary Raymond (Dimiti Weisman)
 (© Johan Persson)
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© Johan Persson Gary Raymond (Dimitri Weismann) Geraldine Fitzgerald (Solange) and Sarah Marie Maxwell (Young Solange)
 (© Johan Persson)
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© Johan Persson Ian McIntosh (Young Ben), Joanna Riding (Sally) and Gemma Sutton (Young Sally) 
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© Johan Persson Sarah Marie Maxwell (Young Solange) Lisa Ritchie (Young Hattie) Vanessa Fisher (Young Stella)
 (© Johan Persson)
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© Johan Persson Alexander Hanson (Ben) and Tracie Bennett (Carlotta)

Book theatre tickets

‘Follies’ returns to the National for an encore, and it’s as dazzling as it was before

Well, hello perfect! Great shows are rare; flawless ones happen only under a blue moon. But Dominic Cooke’s revival of this wry, classy American musical, back for an encore at the National Theatre, is both of the above.

Go in your bleakest mood: I guarantee you will float out into a world where middle-aged bores look like romantic heroes, OAPs could tap-dance brilliantly at the drop of a hat, and just about everything seems a little bit Sondheim. Take your mum, take your grandmother, take your ex or go solo - just don’t miss this, it’s flawless.

The genius thing about Stephen Sondheim’s 1971 musical is that it starts at the end of love: the opposite of the golden-age musicals it looks back on, which tend to end at the start, with a quartet of youngsters high-stepping into the sunset. Its story – the merest wisp of a thing – is set in a ruined theatre that formerly housed dance revue ‘Weismann’s Follies’.

The occasion is a showgirls’ reunion. But the party is just a nostalgic, boozy excuse to assemble the most extraordinary troupe of ordinary women on stage. Once upon a time, they were Weismann’s ‘girls’. Now, they’re wisecracking post-menopausal dames with feet to cut loose, heartbreak to holler about, and philandering husbands to call out. And that’s it, essentially. Except for Sondheim’s music – hit after hit after hit, lavishly, emotionally, immaculately put together by the exceptional 40-strong ensemble and 21-piece orchestra – frequently while dancing backwards in heels.

And also his lyrics, which rewrote the American songbook, mix the champagne fizz of a Cole Porter ballad with a dash of ’70s NYC bitters, for a more grown-up, sophisticated taste. And the delicate, poignant glamour of Cooke’s staging: a spectacular, ghostly set, all ruined red plush chairs and rickety staircases, haunted by the silky, feather-plumed ghosts of the showgirls, and their wise-ass current incarnations, dancing rings around their younger selves. And the cast: all of whom would deserve a star writeup in ordinary circumstances.

This is an ensemble piece and a genuinely dazzling one, but you’ll spend much of your evening hanging out with the middle-aged quartet Sally, Phyllis, Ben and Buddy (Joanna Riding, Janie Dee, Alexander Hansen and Peter Forbes, all outstanding). For what it’s worth: Sally and Phyllis were roomies; Phyllis bagged ambitious Ben (now a wealthy do-gooder and crummy spouse); Sally got Buddy (a philandering salesman) but still loves/stalks Ben.

Their love rectangle is explored from every angle, especially via haunting interplay with their past selves (as Phyllis puts it, succinctly: ‘Lucy wants to do what Jessie does, Jessie wants to be what Lucy was’). That’s the real twisted love affair here for each of them, and indeed for Sondheim, in his wise-assed remake of the Golden Age musical (and indeed for anyone over the age of 30). That unrequited love affair with yourself is shatteringly illuminated in banger after musical-theatre banger – starting out in sly, wry, ‘Annie Hall’-ish New Yorkisms then accelerating through the reality barrier into hectic, Technicolor tragedy or farce.

Riding is heartbreaking and totally scary in her diva climax, ‘Losing My Mind’. And Janie Dee is outrageously brilliant in every respect – on press night, her fully juiced up revenge anthem, ‘Could I Leave You’, nearly prompted a Jerry Springer moment in the usually well-behaved NT audience. Their musical lives will get into your heart, and the lush music, hard-boiled lyrics and tight rhymes will get into your head. Use all your soft powers, queue for two hours, buy the usher fresh flowers – just go, go, go, go to this wonderful show!

Venue name: National Theatre
Contact:
Address: South Bank
London
SE1 9PX
Transport: Rail/Tube: Waterloo
Price: £15-£70. Runs 2hr 15min (no interval)
Static map showing venue location

Average User Rating

3.6 / 5

Rating Breakdown

  • 5 star:7
  • 4 star:0
  • 3 star:4
  • 2 star:3
  • 1 star:1
LiveReviews|15
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1 of 2 found helpful
tastemaker

I booked this show with the expectation of seeing a fun-filled light-hearted show - and there were moments when the younger dancers in spectacular costumes brought moments of relief - but not many.  It was a "musical" of tuneless songs and mature people looking back with regrets.  I was bored.


The saving grace (for the 1 star) was the acceptable singing. But everything else was a disaster. There was no plot, no hook, nothing other than a bunch of pensioners reminiscing about their days when they could actually dance in a sub-standard cabaret in NYC. If I wanted to listen intently to the elderly recollecting about the good ol' days I would go and stay with my parents (although at least they wouldn't sing to me to pass the salt). The worst musical I have seen and, not to toot my own horn but, I have seen a lot and nothing compares to this boring rendition of a care-home on wheels. But I must congratulate them on their tactic of scrapping the idea of an interval. Because if they had one, no-one would return for the second half. Sorry not sorry.

tastemaker

I don't know maybe I had seen too many musicals in too short a space of time but this truly didn't do anything for me. I had excellent seats and I am a huge fan of the National. I loved the costumes, enjoyed the sets and the dancing and singing was excellent, as one would expect. But the songs were truly nothing to write home about. It was a dated script and it felt all too dated. The NT doesn't need to put on this type of populist material... other West End theatres are better suited... Staunton is astonishingly good in pretty much everything she appears in but this doesn't stretch her.

Tastemaker

As a big fan of musicals, and probably an even bigger fan of Imelda Staunton (I loved her in Gypsy and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf) I knew this was a must get ticket. I also went with big expectations due to the other big names in this production (Janie Dee for example). However, I think personally the show didn't live up to the hype that I had generated for myself or for the many stella reviews I read. I think the singing was excellent, and the costumes were great. The set too was commendable. However, it just was not as gripping or entertaining as what I would have hoped for. It was like attending a high school reunion of your distant cousin's school 30 years later, when you never even attended the school and you don't feel a sense of belonging or familiarity at all! 

Tastemaker

I keep going to musicals and getting disappointed – that wasn’t different... Besides a few highlights, the music is quite unremarkable. The choreography seems to try to be grand but it really doesn’t convince. And with that, the lack of a proper plot is very evident. 

The last night of the Follies nightclub is the background to put together a few old cabaret dancers and tell a little about their stories, giving more attention to two dancers (Imelda Stanton and Janie Dee) and their husbands. Some characters seem to have interesting stories, but all they get is one song and a couple of zingers, not enough to really create a character we’d care about. And with all these people, the main couples’ stories can’t really be developed either. Imelda Staunton is great in the very little she can do with her needy and dumbfounded Sally. The best part is definitely of Phyllis, played marvellously by Janie Dee. She does get most of the funny lines, her bitterness and disdain for her husband is wonderfully acted and the songs she gets to sing are the best lyrics in the play. It was worth watching for her, but I wouldn’t recommend it for any person who’s not a BIG fun of musicals.

tastemaker

Follies is a must see production waiting to burst out with all its sparkling talent.

What a stunning show filled with excitement and inspiration.

Don’t miss Follies inside the Olivier Theatre at the National Theatre.

I didn’t know what to expect, but it exceeded all my expectations.

I’ve waited such a long time to grab myself some tickets. It’s been difficult, as it sells out every week.

I managed to grab the Friday rush tickets and the view was super.

Be warned that this show has no interval, so get comfy because you’re on for a fantastical treat, which lasts for 2 hours and 15 minutes.

I do feel it was quite long, but to be honest, you’ll be transfixed all the way through with all the magic of Follies.

The story is beautifully set at the Weismann Theatre, New York in 1971.

The setting on stage is a broken down building of the glorious Weismann Theatre.

To celebrate the end of Weismann Follies and the new beginning of a business, all the Follies girls were invited to the spectacular party of the year.

The beginning started off exquisitely well. The Weismann Follies girls started off with a bang demonstrating pure glamour and pure flamboyancy at its best.

The costumes are to die for. Each and every piece is exuberant, dramatic and extraordinary.

The singing was on point at every level. The talent in this production is out of this world.

What a brilliant cast indeed.

The stars of the show without a doubt were Imelda Staunton who plays Sally Durant and Janie Dee who plays Phyllis.

These two magnificent women portrayed star quality in my eyes and in everyone’s eyes for sure.

It was absolutely hilarious and exciting seeing all the Follies girls after 30 years, come back and walk down the infamous stairs of the Weismann Theatre.

Some were a bit overwhelmed, some over exaggerated their presence, but some were graceful.

It was a combination of the power of these Follies showgirls.

They moved around with such grace and immaculate posture.

At some point I wasn’t sure why there were young people walking behind them like ghosts stalking silently.

I then understood that it was their younger self being embodied into the story.

It demonstrates and explains the background story of each and every Follies girls.

This brought the story into a different perspective and brought it to another light.

It was wonderful seeing what they were like back then 30 years ago.

I felt that bringing back all the Follies girls and their partners was a way to finally sort out all their teenage problems.

At least for Sally (Staunton), Peter Forbes (Buddy Plummer) who is Sally’s husband, Phyllis (Dee) and Philip Quast (Benjamin Stone) who is Phyllis's husband.

The four were fantastic, but had many unfinished chapters of their life to express on that stage.

It was like watching a game, running around in circles figuring out a way to make their lives better.

This story is a perfect example that time doesn’t heal those unpleasant fractures of life.

It’s difficult to pick out certain girls of the cast that stood out for me. They all express themselves beautifully and uniquely in their own way.

There was a part that I loved when Phyllis (Dee) performed a very sensual number towards the end of the show.

I felt like I was in the presence of the glamorous Nicole Kidman from the Moulin Rouge. What a moment.

Why is Follies such a sellout production?

Is it because of the cast? Is it because of the successful Imelda Staunton? Or is it really because that Follies is truly an unforgettable experience?

I really don’t know, but what I do know is that everyone should go to experience the glorifying, the dazzling and the one and only Follies.

#TOTastemaker

Love MD.

tastemaker

I saw this as a preview so maybe it has improved since then, but I did not enjoy the show and found it to be quite amateurish. There were quite a few scenes involving the older characters where their younger selves were just loitering about, making it a bit chaotic and muddled. It was also quite long, and I'm not sure there was a huge amount of plot. The costumes were amazing though, particularly the younger selves outfits. Not worth the hype in my opinion!

Tastemaker

Batshit crazy but visually stunning Sondheim musical about a group of showgirls reuniting at their old theatre before it's torn down. Imelda Staunton and Janie Dee are old friends who became love rivals and haven't seen each other for years. The set was impressive and some classic Sondheim songs are great to hear, but the plot came across as muddled and too long for me as someone unfamiliar with it.

tastemaker

I can't put my finger on why I didn't love this show like everyone else. There were some stunning moments, spoiler: the group number of the older folly ladies and their glamourously clad younger selves is stunning. I just found it hard to get lost in their world and the longing of youth. Imelda Staunton and Janie Dee are two powerhouse leads, but one would expect no less from such seasoned actresses. The set was beautiful, a crumbling dilapidated revolving theatre, a metaphor for the marriages of the main characters perhaps? At 2 hours 15 mins without an interval I found myself getting a bit restless and the final 'folly' scenes of each of the four leads in turn, frankly got a bit tiresome.

Tastemaker

This Sondheim's remake in National Theatre deserves every penny that you are going to pay for it. An amazing production with lots of costumes, spot-on lighting, excellent direction and Imelda Staunton on the leading role giving her best performance ever. A musical that you definately have to see!

Tastemaker

Follies is probably Sondheim's most traditional musical, in that it has set pieces, dance routines, show girls and, separate songs that don't bleed into each other. However, it is still complex; the story has great depth and some of the songs are operatic in nature. 

It is expensive and complicated to produce, it has a large cast, with demanding roles throughout the company. Full productions of Follies are rare, so when there is a high quality, committed revival, such as this on offer, the opportunity needs to be grabbed. 

Its Sondheim, so the material is fantastic. Its the National Theatre, so the production values are top notch. Imelda Staunton, Janie Dee, Philip Quast and Peter Forbes are the four leads, so the acting and singing are outstanding.

It has Tracie Bennett and Geraldine Fitzgerald in supporting roles so it has incredible strength in depth.

Follies at the National Theatre is fantastic, and given all the ingredients that went into it, there was never any doubt that it would be.

Tastemaker

Be aware before sitting down that Follies runs for two and a quarter hours with no interval! The premise of the show is that the theatre where The Follies used to be performed on Broadway is about to be torn down and the former Follies girls have been invited back, thirty years later, to reminisce and celebrate what was. The show starts out beautifully with flashbacks to the Follies girls in their dazzling costumes. The show then very cleverly flits between the present and past, showing us that time doesn’t necessarily heal all wounds. Imelda Staunton was wonderful as always, but I thought that Janie Dee playing Phyllis had the stand out role. When Dee sang The Story of Lucy and Jessie, I felt like I was watching Nicole Kidman on stage. 


Book now! This show is wonderful - great songs, dance, humour, drama etc. It is totally unaffordable as the cast is not only huge, but requires even small parts to be done by star performers. The National Theatre is probably the only organisation who can afford to do this - courtesy of your taxes...so go and see Follies while you can (and get some of those taxes back). It is an extravaganza performed extravagantly.


So much of it was good I was swept along in an uncritical haze of wonder and staggered out at the end thinking that it was worth my membership of the NT - even though I had had to sit through the first half of Common a few months ago, before staggering out at half time, and have bailed out of a few other NT shows since then. 


One can always find fault, of course. Imelda Staunton was not quite used to her full abilities in a role that needs passionate warmth rather than a character actor - perhaps she is better in roles with more extreme characters, such as in Sweeney Todd. And, occasionally my attention strayed...but perhaps it had to, to recover some energy between the various exceptional numbers dotted throughout the show. And there were so many, from so many in the cast.


Having no knowledge of the plot, or expectations of the performance, it was especially wonderful to have a final set of scenes where so many ends were left loose.


Shows like this don't come around very often - they are too unaffordable. So, don't miss this one.


Follies is an absolute must-see: elegantly directed, with stunning central performances and a timeless score. 


Set in the crumbling ruins of a cabaret theatre, long-lost friends and lovers reunite to share memories of their time there, as spectators and as the gorgeous girls up on stage. Throughout the show, we glimpse into the lives of each member of the ensemble, ranging from the French diva whose spirit hasn't aged a day, to the movie star who's just grateful to be alive and others, who mourn for what might have been.


Sondheim's score is brilliantly crafted with witty and insightful lyrics, and the fragmented set offers a perfect contrast to the girls' bedazzled costumes from the past. But special mention must go to the central performances. Imelda Staunton is on cracking form, Philip Quast's voice is unreal, Janie Dee is superb and Tracie Bennett owns every bar of "I'm Still Here".


I knew nothing about Follies but am so glad to have seen it. It is a celebration of life, of growing older and of seizing every moment. 

tastemaker

Now, I'm generally not a fan of musicals, but Follies was a thing of absolute wonder.

We saw it in a fairly early preview, but it was - barring a slight malfunction with a curtain - practically flawless. The music and dance are breathtaking, and Imelda Staunton is an absolute goddess.

Highly recommended!

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