"Sondheim's Airs On A Shoestring"
by Johnny Fox for remotegoat on 25/10/10

The friend I invited to come with me was vehement: "I ****ing HATE it … screw Follies, and screw Sondheim's pappy pastiche score too". That's the problem with 'Steve', he polarises even his devotees and this is one of his most divisive works, combining a banal and disjunctive book by James Goldman with some of Sondheim's best songs.

The 'book' pairs two retired musical stars, and their interchangeable husbands, with their four younger selves meeting in a condemned theatre - here Ye Olde Rose and Crown Walthamstow was particularly convincing - on the eve of its demolition. The songs explore their current and past relationships and reveal much of the bitter compromises made along the 'road you didn't take'. Oh, and someone has a nervous breakdown.

Unless you can afford to throw vast money and stardom at it as in the glossy revivals in London in 1987 led by Julia McKenzie and Diana Rigg, or the immaculate 2007 City Center concert in New York, it works best as a series of showstopping 'turns' for veteran performers to get a crack at fantastic cabaret solos and duets.

Unfortunately, in the Walthamstow production, these are poorly served: Ellen Verenieks' 'Broadway Baby' was crucified and neither 'Ah, Paris' nor 'Rain on the Roof' (admittedly a difficult number) fared any better. Among the principals there's a lot of popping neck veins and red faces as they strain to support their notes - Frank Loman as Ben carrying the heaviest workload but with limited variety in his performance.

Staging and choreography have two settings: clunk on and off atop a hollow wooden catwalk, or enter sideways in a showgirl glide. The high point of the evening was undoubtedly the tap number 'Who's That Woman' where all eight Follies 'girls' confront their younger selves, and an absolute gift to its lead soloist whether Joanne Worley bringing the house down in New York, Lynda Baron falling out of her frock in London, or as here the magnetic Mahny Djahanguiri exhibiting genuine talent and confidence, as Stella.

Given her own chance to reveal an inner jazz baby in 'Jessie and Lucy', with stolid left and right hand signals, Julie Ross as Phyllis appeared to be directing the traffic on the nearby Tottenham road, and again threw away an opportunity with an underpowered 'Could I Leave You'. Maggie Robson as Sally had some pitching problems but showed real tenderness in both 'In Buddy's Eyes', arguably Sondheim's most genuinely sentimental song, and brought a convincing climax to 'Losing My Mind'.

It's fairly standard practice in fringe productions like this for the director to back up a van to the loading dock of Arts Educational Schools and fill it with all it can hold in the way of aspiring talent. But Follies requires eight vivacious actresses in their fifties or sixties so Tim McArthur's van must have done a double journey to the back door of Debenhams where surely they can't ALL have been demonstrating food mixers in the basement?

Fiona Russell's set and costume design showed ingenuity and caught the period feel, but crippled by the shoestring budget. Paring the orchestra down to four is fine for a chamber production but the entire score was played ploddingly from the book without any variation of tempo to suit the performers, and far too loud, given that the actors aren't miked. Pity too that they couldn't get a real piano up the stairs instead of the electronic keyboard.

For all its faults, 'Follies' certainly overdue a revival. In fact, I've had an idea - why not re-cast it with the quartet of 'kids' who played the 'young' parts in 1987 at the Shaftesbury Theatre now playing their adult roles? Why? Because in 1987, Young Sally and Young Phyllis were played by Sally Ann Triplett and Jenna Russell.

Now THAT I'd pay to see.

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