Between the world wars, a group of women performed in a Ziegfeld-style follies revue in a New York theatre. Now, several decades later, with the theatre on the brink of demolition, they reunite to recall former glories, past loves, to relive the follies of youth and, in some cases, to doom themselves to repeating them.
I’ll be honest, 2nd Company’s production of Stephen Sondheim and James Goldman’s Follies is my first. While I was aware of several of the songs (like all such musicals, you pass your eye down the list in the programme and recognise the titles of some, then realise you know more when you hear them performed) and knew the basic plot, I therefore can’t really comment on how much better (or worse) director Ray Rackham’s interpretation varies from others’.
Visually, the Pleasance’s small (and, on Friday night, bakingly hot) black box SecondSpace has been well designed, giving the impression of a ramshackle theatre that has scrubbed up slightly for the reunion. A row of footlights, added for this production, help add an other-worldly air for some numbers. Indeed, the lighting desk is worked extensively, far more than you’d expect in a production in a space this small. Unfortunately, sometimes the actors seemed to be working to different blocking than the spotlight positions indicated, but every so often one or two very impressive lighting cues made up for the faults.
A show such as Follies, which demands a large number of older performers, can struggle to find consistency when able to recruit from the upper echelons of the acting profession. A fringe production struggles even more, and it’s evident here – there are one or two actresses who, far from being triple threats, show little sign of being double (or, if one were being hypercritical, single). At times it did feel like there was no way we were watching a troupe of ladies who were once famous Follies – what lovers of the original Priscilla: Queen of the Desert movie will know as “the Terence Stamp problem”. What individual performers may lack is well compensated for, however, by the gusto with which the numbers are attacked. There is certainly no shortage of enthusiasm on offer.
Any musical succeeds or fails depending on the effectiveness of its central story. The two couples at Follies’ heart – with Sally tempted away from her failing marriage to Buddy by being reunited with her first love, Ben, whose own marriage to Sally’s best friend Phyllis is similarly shaky – draw the audience in to good effect. They are assisted here by their “ghost” selves, most notably Angela Nesi and Aideen McCartney as the younger Phyllis and Sally. Richard Chatwin’s young Buddy gets little chance to show off some impressive vocal ability until the second act, with Daniel Norman as the young Ben being given far more chance to shine and impressing all the more as a result.
Despite the small space, there is still room for some impressive choreography, which feels all the more connected to the audience when every leap and landing reverberates through the floor. Indeed, the cramped space adds intimacy all round, and if this production can find a deserved larger space for a transfer, I hope that connectedness with the audience doesn’t suffer.