Not quite a ‘once in a lifetime’ show, but a ‘twice in a lifetime’ as this staging of Stephen Sondheim’s musical ‘Follies’ played at the Royal Albert Hall yesterday afternoon and evening. It now has the distinction of being the most expensive ticket I ever bought for a show – I initially baulked at the £98 ticket price, and sales were sluggish for quite a while, but we duly booked once the cast was announced. Good seats, in the stalls. Nothing could go wrong, could it?
When we arrived, it was clear these were restricted view seats, although not sold as such. I appreciate the RAH may not have known at the point of sale that this was the case, but in advance of the show they would have done. This problem affected four seats on each side of the stage. Note the speakers and the ugly black rail that gave one double vision when watching a cast member singing at the front (only affected three numbers, but still). At a sporting event where we had a slight restriction on the view of a full price ticket at Wembley Arena we were given the option to be reseated: as ‘Follies’ was not entirely sold out, this would have been a nice gesture from the Hall.
I might have let this go had we not paid extortionate premium West End prices for our tickets. For nearly £100 I don’t expect a rail in my way or speakers that stop me seeing people’s feet when dance numbers have been staged (as Craig Revel Horwood of ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ was directing, it was no surprise to see some inspired pieces, of which more later). So that’s my one negative of the night: on to the show.
(And do look for the 1985 concert version, too, which is available in part on DVD. Revel Horwood rightfully flags it in the programme: Follies in Concert (1985).)
When the cast was announced, it was quite a mouthwatering confection – the four main roles of the couples Buddy and Sally, and Ben and Phyllis would be played by Peter Polycarpou and Ruthie Henshall, and Alexander Hanson and Christine Baranski. A slight disparity in ages aside this was excellent casting, and Henshall’s emotive vibrato worked well on ‘In Buddy’s Eyes’, ‘Too Many Mornings’ and her big number, Act Two’s ‘Losing My Mind'; while Baranski’s acid vibrancy pepped up ‘Would I Leave You’ (circling Hanson’s Ben like a snake as he was symbolically caged between the set’s flexible arches, which also served as doors, mirrors, and showcases, and her sense of brassy fun fizzed through ‘The Story of Lucy and Jessie’.
Polycarpou’s Buddy was a jaded traveller who juggled the wife who was bored by him and the girlfriend who was wowed by his status with seedy charm, and ‘Buddy’s Blues’ was fun, while his acting in the background while the story of his wife’s former love affair with the young Ben unfolded was well thought out. As Ben, Hanson was in very good voice and he was well matched by Alistair Brammer as his younger self (we’d missed Brammer in ‘Miss Saigon’ as he was ill when we attended the show, I can see he would have been an excellent Chris).
‘Follies’ in many ways is about the girls, and they were all introduced in a chorus line by Russell Watson’s ‘Beautiful Girls’. We had Stefanie Powers as Solange, Betty Buckley as Carlotta, Anita Dobson as Stella, Anita Harris as Emilie, Lorna Luft as Hattie, and Charlotte Page as Heidi. I’d seen Page a couple of weeks ago as the Beggar Woman in Sweeney Todd, so she is definitely versatile with pure opera coming to the fore here, but she seems far too young to play alongside such a veteran cast – although of a similar vintage to Henshall. What I didn’t realise until I just looked it up was that Page is married to Alistair McGowan, who was tonight’s Dimitri (wasn’t this originally announced for Christopher Biggins?).
The other ladies do well in their roles. The Whitmans’ ‘Rain on the Roof’ always strikes me as a curious inclusion to the score alongside the big numbers, but Harris, still glamorous, played well alongside comic great Roy Hudd in this piece; while Powers was a cheeky minx in ‘Ah! Paris’ with better singing than I expected. Lorna Luft (otherwise known as Judy Garland’s second daughter) exuded star quality and big voice in ‘Broadway Baby’, the first palm-tingling showstopper of the night – I’d seen her on stage once before, in a show in Leeds alongside Wayne Sleep, and she hasn’t lost any of her energy: this song was a belter.
After Ben and Sally’s quieter, reflective pieces it was time for a bit of fun where Dobson took centre stage for ‘Who’s That Woman’ aided and abetted by her colleagues – nicely portraying Stella’s hesitation at going back to her singing and dancing past, and also perhaps the fact that this artist does not have the same musical range as the other ladies. Whichever, the staging was superb, with a rotation of ensemble girls mirroring their mature counterparts, and Dobson clearly having a lot of fun, and deserving of her prolonged applause.
Betty Buckley – last seen here in Dear World – was, as expected, a superb Carlotta. ‘I’m Still Here’ has been much performed: if you go to YouTube you can watched Dolores Gray, Ann Miller, Elaine Stritch, Elaine Paige, Shirley MacLaine, Carol Burnett, tonight’s own Christine Baranski, Yvonne DeCarlo, Polly Bergen, Eartha Kitt and more perform the number. It was perhaps the highlight of the night, although I still find Buckley a cold performer in some ways while others might engage more with their audience. Regardless, she is a huge Broadway star and was a good choice for this show’s Carlotta.
The richness of the Sondheim music is often lost in a show which is hard to revive, but the central quartet and their regrets and futures were portrayed well, and the quieter songs were not lost in the mix. ‘Too Many Mornings’ is perhaps one of his finest lost relationship songs, and this was done well – as was Henshall’s Sally reacting with clear grief when she realised her suspicions about her husband Buddy’s infidelity were true. Baranski’s Phyllis also showed a soft centre under the hardness she had developed over the years in a marriage where she felt taken for granted.
A word, too, for the ensemble, who worked hard, from the glamorous girls to the suited boys (young Sally – Amy Ellen Richardson, young Buddy – Jos Slovick and young Phyllis – Laura Pitt-Pulford), to Carol Ball’s veteran chorus member – and of course the City of London Philharmonic under the baton of Gareth Valentine. This was a show I was pleased to attend (no sign of cameras or recording equipment so I assume it has not been recorded for posterity), despite the disappointment of feeling cheated by the venue in their description of the seats we purchased.
Some decent curtain call photos were afforded by our view though (once we stood up), and I present a couple for you – Miss Luft and Miss Powers:
… and the best I could get of tonight’s core couples: