I know I’m late to the party with Follies but what can I do? Such was the demand for tickets that I only finally saw it a few days ago. But, my god, was it worth the wait, or what.
Of course, I was swept up with Sondheim’s legendary score – iconic musical numbers such as Broadway Baby, I’m Still Here, and the breath-taking Losing My Mind, soared up into the heavens of the Olivier. The cast is superb – Yes, Imelda Staunton’s talent is ridiculous (couldn’t God have shared it out a bit more? Did Imelda really need to be given every acting and performance talent going??) but the supporting cast are superb too. Cracking performances and sublime choreography effortlessly executed.
It’s all so impressive, and its story is one that tugs at the heartstrings with all its bittersweet nostalgia – faded showgirls of a revue show that ran between the wars reuniting one last time, with their partners, to reflect on their former glories and where life has taken them since.
And so, you may be thinking, what could I add to the flood of reviews that have already been long published? Why write this article? Well, because what overcome me most of all in this excellent production was the design. And so, in truth, I am here to write a love letter to Vicki Mortimer and her breath-taking production design.
What we witness is the lost grandeur of lives in their prime. Rubble fills the stage – as much a reflection on the crumbling of the glory and dreams of the showgirls, as it is for a theatre falling into ruin. The walls are falling away, bulbs are blown in the big marquee signs, exposing a theatre for little more than what it is – simply bricks and dust.
Yet, this is the magic of theatre, that such a simple, unassuming space can be transformed, through performance, story and song, into a place where magic is created. Where a spell can be cast and where performers and audiences are transported alike into a new realm, one miles away from the slum and disappointment of ordinary life.
Vicki gives us crumbling walls and once-perfect velvet seating now torn and damaged, but what she is really giving us is the magic that showgirls can bring. That the glory is not in the bricks and mortar but in the wonder of the theatrical spectacle.
And so, we watch and listen as each of these showgirls – each one older than when they performed on the stage, each with more lines around their eyes and softer jawlines than their younger selves – emerge from the shadows into the spotlight to sing, once more. To feel the life blood in their veins for one last time.
And to watch these seemingly ordinary women in their cheap suits and dime-store velour dresses be transformed by the power of the stage is magical. To them, the debris is irrelevant and invisible. Their age and more limited movement overlooked, replaced with the re-emergence of a spark in their eyes. Their backs straighten, their heads tip back, and they walk a little taller. It’s their souls breathing back into life.
I’ve no doubt that much of the impact of all of this is, for me, tightly woven into my own past as a showgirl. That period of my life, too, feels like a lifetime ago. A brief moment of wonderfulness in an otherwise ordinary life of work, drudgery and disappointment. And its these ghosts of our past that never truly die which Vicki and director Dominic Cooke capture so magnificently here.
For each of these women who arrive at the reunion is shadowed by their own ghost. Behind them, in every step that they take, is the pale ghostly vision of themselves in their prime – whether that be a flapper for those showgirls who danced here in the 1920s, to the iconic image of the carnival showgirl clad in the barest of strings and beads with a glorious plume of white feathers framing her physique, a spectacular chandelier of a headdress balanced perfectly as a crown.
And the feathers on these ghosts are pristine. Brilliant white. The crystals in their headpieces dazzling to the eye, chinks of light bouncing off the beading in their costumes. Not a speck of dust from the rubble around them seems to touch these showgirls. They are frozen in time as perfection. Their light never to dim. Time will not wither our memories of them the way it has withered away at our true selves. We will age and fade away, but the showgirls will go on, unblemished.
There is such soul in Vicki’s design that it just takes your heart into its hands, then breaks it. Everything is thought through and, yet more than this, it captures something from deep within this book and score in this famous musical.
So tempting and so easy would have been the decision to plump for a soulless spectacle. Not here. Instead, all that bittersweet symphony that is life can be encapsulated in that one image that will stay with me forever of a showgirl in her prime and all her finery stepping out so nimbly, without a wobble in her walk, through the rubble and decay around her. Forever sublime, even amongst all the damage and disaster that life can bring,
Without such beauty I wonder if this production would have impacted the audience half as much as it evidently has. This is theatre design of the highest order. Vicki Mortimer, I salute you.
National Theatre, London, to January 3, 2017
Tickets from £15.
All production images by Johan Persson.