It is appropriate to watch a screening of Follies in Colwyn Bay’s Theatr Colwyn; the oldest working cinema in Britain, and the oldest working theatre in Wales. Our venue has a history, and perhaps a few audience members have memories of performing here through the decades. And Follies is a story which concerns, above all, the memories of performers.
The setting is the Weismann Theatre; a derelict Broadway venue, soon to be demolished. It is 1971, and past members of the “Weismann Follies” – a musical revue who performed there between the two wars – are having a reunion. Visually, the idea of memories is thrust upon us from the beginning. Vicki Mortimer, the show’s designer, has made the Weismann Theatre into a haunting mausoleum; crumbling bricks on the building’s interior and exterior, mouldy and tattered red velvet theatre chairs – and all the scene-changes are executed slickly on the National Theatre’s revolving stage.
Mortimer also designed the costumes, which, when paired with Sondheim’s pastiche numbers, evokes a hair-raisingly nostalgic feel of inter-war showbusiness. With peacock feathers and striped blazers – both the women and men looked the part.
However, an evening of sentimental-nostalgia isn’t the vibe Follies is going for. James Goldman’s book is a tale of bleakness, only bearable due to its humour and, of course, the addition of Sondheim’s music and lyrics. The stage is occupied, throughout the show, by both the present-day characters and the memories of their younger selves. Past and present are interwoven as these two periods share the stage in musical numbers, dialogue and, occasionally, in silent moments of reflection.
The ex-Follies, some older than others, reflect on their past performances – and what’s happened since – in some outstanding musical numbers, and elaborate dramatic sequences, that are performed by a flawless cast. Each performer has made their character stand out, and there genuinely isn’t a boring note sung, or word said. There are four individuals who we could call protagonists, but some of the greatest songs come from the supporting cast. Josephine Barstow almost steals the show as Heidi Schiller, the oldest of the Follies, whose song “One More Kiss” raises hairs. It is performed as a duet with her younger self, who stands behind her in a dim light – the memory of 1919 not as bright and vivid as it once was – as they share the melancholy lyrics: “All things beautiful must die / Now that our love is done / Lover, give me one more kiss goodbye.”
The central narrative focuses on two married couples, and both relationships are far from perfect (or faithful). Sally and Phyllis, played by Imelda Staunton and Janie Dee respectively, performed in the Follies together in the ‘40s. This is where they met their husbands Buddy and Ben – Peter Forbes and Philip Quast. Through conversations and flashbacks – in which the younger actors were put to excellent use – we soon learn of the history, and current dynamic, of both couples. Phyllis and Ben are subtly at each other’s throat from the very beginning, and feign a comic civility for the sake of showing face. Sally and Buddy’s problem is less obvious, but we soon learn that Sally and Ben had a fling back in the day, and Buddy rightly worries that the former never really got over it. Both couples move, sometimes in sync, with their younger selves, in sequences that are often hypnotic and dreamlike – the stage acts as a shared hub of memories. There are times when the present looks mournfully at its past, and the past looks worryingly towards the future.
Buddy’s big number, “Buddy’s Blues”, is a real throwback the ‘20s – and on the surface it’s a jolly little showtune, but the lyrics reveal an absurd yet familiar element of the human condition. Why is it that whenever we get what we want, it immediately loses the glorious quality it had when it was out of our grasp? “I’ve got those God-why-don’t-you-love-me-oh-you-do-I’ll-see-you-later blues…” The lyrics are witty and hilarious, too. Peter Forbes performs this with a great deal of energy, running around the stage in strobe lighting that gives the effect of a silent-era slapstick film.
This is one of the four pastiche numbers that end the show – each of the main characters has one. They ingeniously analyse the dilemmas and delusions inside the character’s heads, while at the same time paying tribute to interwar Broadway. Imelda Staunton’s performance of Sally’s number, “Losing My Mind”, is also heartbreaking, as she expresses the same fragility she did in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf earlier this year.
Dominic Cooke, best known for straight plays, has proven that he knows how to direct a musical. As the play ends, we’re left with a combination of pathos and awe. The story doesn’t conclude in a typical fashion, but there never really was a story to begin with. Our protagonists move away from the past – what other choice is there? – in an ambiguously melancholy resignation, similar to the ending of an Ishiguro novel. The story isn’t the only cause of our ambivalent feelings though; what a fantastic journey we’ve just been on, but when will we experience anything like it again?
Follies is at the Olivier Theatre until January 3rd.