NTLive Follies

Posted on November 19, 2017
In 1987 my mother, grandmother, and other female family members too a trip to London to see Follies on the West End. In 2017 Ma took me to see Follies streamed from the West End. Thirty years apart, just like the reunion in the musical.

National Theatre Live is essential. I’ve now seen six performances (seven if you count both parts of Angels in America) and they have varied from mind changing to very good. I’m starting to have a scale to judge such things and all of that is all due to the National Theatre putting plays on in 700 cinemas over the world. I can’t afford a train to London and a “proper” ticket but I can afford 17 quid in my local cinema. 

I’d heard the name Sondheim before but I didn’t know who he was. According to the internet: Steven Sondheim wrote the music and lyrics to West Side Story, Sweeney Todd, Into the Woods, and Follies. None of which I had seen and don’t remember much of the Sweeney Todd film version. Seems it cut lots of bits of music. He’s a name so I was expecting something good.


There isn’t really a traditional story. There are various numbers reflecting on how some of the performers lives have turned out and then mixed in the ‘central plot’.

Josephine Barstow, Gemma Page, Janie Dee, Geraldine Fitzgerald and Tracie Bennett. Photo by Johan Persson. Five old women decend on a metal fire escape staircase attached to a crumbling brick wall. They are mostly happy. Each with a sash with the year they performed. 1918,1930,196,1938,1941. In the foreground is another old woman and her husband.

The main event takes place in 1971, thirty years after the Weismann’s Follies closed down, at a reunion party before the building is demolished. Except the central conflict between the main four characters takes place out of time. The older characters sharing a stage with the ghosts of their younger selves. Then the happy successful lies slowly unravel. Imelda Staunton’s character, Sally, sang early on about in her husband thought her perfect. With context, “In Buddy’s eyes” becomes evidence of another delusion. 

Later in the show it becomes more about the two unhappy couples. They have an argument overlapping in era. Then it gets even weirder with each of their “Follies” being enacted and danced around with all the performers in the silliest outfits.

I enjoyed the side stories more than the main one. It was refreshing to see older ladies sing about how they still have lives ahead of them. Tracy Bennett introducing “I’m Still Here with a complaint that it’s viewed as a joke rather than a more honest evaluation of a life of mixed success. Josephine Barstow, Gemma Page, Janie Dee, Geraldine Fitzgerald and Tracie Bennett. Photo by Johan Persson. Six of the performers are on a near empty stage. The young and old versions of both the wives and one of the husbands, Ben Stone. He married one woman and had an affair with the other, and she still loves him in both eras. They stand around shouting and pleading with each other.


This thing looked great. I loved the crumbing walls and seats covered in rubble.  It contrasted so well with the elegant old ladies and their glittering ghosts.  The young women following cautiously behind their future selves. Having the younger and older versions of the characters on stage at the same time sounds confusing but most of the time the brightest lights were on the “modern” versions of the characters. 

Tracie Bennett as Carlotta Campion. Photo by Johan Persson. In the foreground is the old Carlotta under a bright light in a tasteful red dress. In the background in dim lighting young Carlotta sits gracefully in a silver dress and stared crown. 


And what’s a National Theatre show without a spinning stage? Three out of three of the NTLive shows from the actual Royal National Theatre building. Oh and the crazy outfits that look like how I imagine a stage show from almost a century ago. 


I’m not really into musical theatre but I can say with certainly say everyone in it knew how to sing. It was joyful and touching. The twenty one piece orchestra hiding behind the stage got a standing ovation. 


I don’t really know anything about dancing. Is anyone noticing a theme in my work?Seeing the older ladies dance together with varied levels of motion was delightful. When trying to recreate their old glory singing “Who’s That Woman”, they are joined by the echoes of their younger selves. Dancing around each other then all joining arms in a long line. 

Photo by Johan Persson. Seven of the old Follies tap dance in formation. Arms in the air, toes pointed out. 


I’m giving Follies 4 stars. I’m not denying the huge amount of talent and money that’s gone into the production. Just themes of aging and relationships growing apart aren’t going to resonate with as someone as young as me. I’ll try to catch it in another thirty years. Maybe then I’ll take my Ma and really understand it.

I only zoned out once. For a two hour plus musical with no interval and that is commendable. Sondheim wanted it that way for “a reason” and it wasn’t like the marathon that was Angels in America. Maybe it’s as one piece because it’s all fragments of lives rather than a cohesive traditional story. Ranks 6th in the 7 NTLive streams I’ve seen.


Emily Langham as Young Carlotta. Photo by Johan Persson. The dancer from 1938 sits on a bank of rubble and broken red furnishings. In the background a sign. Light bulbs, some burst, most burning bright, trace the words "Weismanns's Follies glorifying the american girl." The woman is dressed in silver and glitter. Her gown long and draping. Around her head are three rings with large six pointed stars on them.


This recording has been reshown in cinemas a couple of times since release and I did return with my mother and grandmother to watch it together.