So I’ve been to two very different shows in the last few days, and had two very different experiences. One was Andrew Lloyd Webber’s and Tim Rice’s 1970s rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar ( a show I appeared in myself in the original production at the Palace Theatre in 1977-1978) at the Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park, and the other Stephen Sondheim’s legendary, starrily cast Follies at the Royal National Theatre. I also had two very different experiences, as you might expect, but whereas one exceeded all expectations, the other turned out to be something of a disappointment.
I’ve loved both shows for years. I’d auditioned for JCS, whilst still at the Guildhall, but though the company were interested in me, I couldn’t at first take up an offer of a job because I didn’t have an Equity card (absolutely necessary in those days). I was lucky that they kept my details on file, because, while I was away in Hong Kong with Dougie Squires’ Second Generation, they got back in touch (via my mother) and repeated their offer. I was understandably thrilled to accept. Follies also has associations with my college days. Side by Side by Sondheim, with Julia McKenzie, Millicent Martin, David Kernan and Ned Sherrin was playing to packed houses at the Mermaid Theatre, where many of my fellow students worked as ushers. Most of us knew the show almost by heart, and it was this show that introduced London audiences to the music of Follies, although they had to wait till 1987 to see the whole show, at the Shaftesbury Theatre.
I’d have to admit that Superstar evokes so many emotional memories that it is hard for me to be objective. The introduction to Heaven on their minds hit me like a punch in the solar plexus, and I almost sobbed, so palpable was the recall of entering at the back of the stage behind Steve Alder’s Jesus. Thereafter, though, my emotional involvement faltered. The production came with huge praise and had won an Olivier Award for Best Musical Revival, so expectations were high. Unfortunately they were not fulfilled.
My first gripe was with the story telling. None of my companions had seen the show before and they were all having difficulty working out who was who. Only Caiaphas and the priests had any definite identity, and at the beginning it was difficult to work out who was Jesus, who Judas. They may have wanted to get away from cliche, but it helped that in the original production, Jesus wore his traditional white robe, meaning the audience knew immediately who he was. Pilate too was immediately identifiable from his long, purple Roman robe, and Mary wore a red dress, setting her in relief from the predominant browns and beiges of the rest of the cast.
Another reason storytelling got lost was that the production couldn’t decide whether it was a rock opera or a rock concert. However impressive it is that Jesus, Mary and Pilate can play the guitar, making them do so for their big solos somehow puts a barrier between them and the audience. Indeed it was only when Declan Bennett’s Jesus cast aside his guitar in Gethsemane that he, and we, began to feel any emotional engagement with his predicament. From that point until the end of the number, he was brilliantly effective and earned a terrific reception from the audience.
I also have a question about the use of crosses in the temple scene. Surely, as a Christian symbol, they would not have been in use then. It was also hard to understand that the crowd in the second part of that scene were a crowd of lepers craving to be healed.
For all its energy and vitality, I don’t think Timothy Sheader’s production ever got to grips with the drama, and, for that reason, it was a far less moving experience than the original production. Maybe it was more suited to today’s cynical agnosticism, but, though I’m not a believer myself, I feel sure that the ending of the piece, when the cacophony of Jesus’s crucifixion gives way to the serene major key of the strings playing the adagio theme from Gethsemane, is supposed to convey a sense of awe and hope. I felt none of those things on Saturday.
What a contrast with Dominic Cooke’s superb, thought provoking and profoundly moving production of Follies at the National Theatre.
This is a fragmentary piece, and the main story featuring the two couples Sally and Buddy, Phyllis and Ben, can often get lost amongst the subsidiary stories of all the other characters, who all get their star turns, all of them wonderfully performed here. I’m still here has been sung by a range of performers, including Barbra Streisand, but here, in Tracie Bennett’s stunning rendition, perhaps reaches its apogee. At first casually trading confidences with other guests, they gradually melt away as her confessions become more and more personal, resulting in a climax of incredible intensity. She rightly brought the house down.
It was one of several such moments. Dawn Hope also shone in a brilliant version of Who’s That Woman, ably supported by the other Weisman girls. One of the excellent conceits of the production is having the Weisman girls (and Buddy and Ben) continually shadowed by their younger selves. Here the older girls are joined by their younger selves in a fabulous tap routine that rivals anything you will see in 42nd Street. It is here also that Bill Deamer’s superb, discreetly apposite choreography is given full rein.
One should also mention Billy Boyle and Norma Atallah in Rain on the Roof, Geraldine Fiztgerald in Ah, Paris! and Di Bottcher’s Broadway baby. Also a word for Dame Josephine Barstow reminding us of both her and Heidi’s operatic past in One more kiss, her younger self beautifully shadowed by Alison Langer. But, however great these individual performances, none of them detracted from the main story of the two couples, which Sondheim and James Goldman interweaves with flashbacks to the lives of their younger selves, wonderfully played by Zizi Strallen, Alex Young, Adam Rhys-Charles and Fred Haig. As the story unravels, so do the protagonists, until, in the final Follies section, Ben breaks down completely.
I would love to say the fabulous Imelda Staunton stole the show, but, and I’m sure she would actually appreciate this, she was just one diamond amongst a stage of sparkling jewels. None of the performances stood out, because they were all equally amazing, all shockingly real. The songs, brilliantly acted as well as brilliantly sung, even the ones in the final Follies sequence (and this is where Sondheim is so clever) served to further their story and tell us more about the character. Singing became a natural form of expression when mere words could do no more.
Staunton presented a nervous, hyper-sensitive Sally, slightly unstable from the word go. A womanwho had spent her life tragically clinging onto a dream that never was. The wistful In Buddy’s eyes still revealed the heartache underneath, and when she sang the words “You said you loved me” in the torch song Losing my mind, you felt that this was a mantra she had been repeating to herself all her life. Peter Forbes’s Buddy was crumbling under the knowledge that he was always second best, and that seeking solace in the arms of another was not really what he wanted. His solos are sometimes over played for comic value, and I often find them a little tiresome. Here they revealed so much about Buddy’s character that I hung on every word. Janie Dee’s super elegant, wise cracking Phyllis turned out to be the solid lynchpin in her marriage to Philip Quast’s outwardly successful but inwardly tortured Ben. Could I leave you? was expectedly brilliant, but she also managed to pull off the difficult Story of Lucy and Jessie with a sassy elegance, in a routine that paid tribute to Rita Hayworth’s Gilda. Philip Quast, urbane and sophisticated gradually fell to pieces as the drink took its toll, and his ultimate breakdown in the final Live, Laugh, Love was almost unbearably, shatteringly moving. Ultimately, though one might have thought differently at the beginning, it was the Phyllis/Ben marriage that looked like a survivor. Maybe Phyllis, the strongest character of the lot, just needed to be needed, and as Ben curled up in her arms, equilibrium was restored. On the other hand one wondered how, or even if, Sally and Buddy would be able to pick up the pieces of their shattered marriage afterwards.
Miss it at your peril, this is the greatest production of Follies I’ve ever seen, actually one of the greatest productions of anything I’ve ever seen.