photograph Johan Persson
It’s said (by Michael Coveney, in his superb new book, London Theatres, Frances Lincoln, £30) that the auditorium of the 1,100-seat Olivier Theatre (upstairs at the Royal National Theatre) is modelled on the amphitheatre at Epidaurus. This makes it an especially poignant venue for a revival of Stephen Sondheim’s Follies, which depicts a reunion of the chorus girls in Weismann’s (i.e., Ziegfeld’s) Follies, staged in the ruins of the theatre about to become a car park (or worse, an office-block skyscraper). In Dominic Cooke’s seemingly no-expense-spared production, designer Vicki Mortimer uses the 5-storey high drum revolve to spectacular effect to show off the showgirls in all their ostrich plumage, but also fills the space with the apparently ever-changing clutter of a theatre being demolished.
With the exception of the lyrics of his masterpieces, West Side Story and Gypsy, I find a very little Sondheim goes an awfully long way. I would rather sit through a month’s-worth of performances of Waiting for God (or Krapp’s Last Tape, come to that) than ever see another production of Sunday in the Park with George; and one Sweeney Todd every ten years seems about right to me. New stagings of Follies are comparatively rare, so I’m not abashed to admit this was my first experience of one Sondheim piece I’ll willingly see again.
James Goldman’s book has a lot to do with this, as it exquisitely knits together the plot of the reunion of the now middle-aged to elderly women with the plots of frustrated love, jealousy and betrayed friendship. There’s a subtlety about Sally Durant Plummer (the brilliant Imelda Staunton) still carrying a torch forty years on for Benjamin Stone (an immaculate Philip Quast), though she has long been married to Buddy Plummer (a rumpled Peter Forbes) and he, Ben, to Phyllis Rogers Stone (an aloof, sardonic Janie Dee). As college boys and chorus girls, they were two pairs of best friends; but Ben couldn’t help but “play around” with Sally, and Sally always had the hots for Ben – even when she appears to swear undying fidelity in the show-topping song, “In Buddy’s Eyes”, delivered touchingly by Ms Staunton. So the show is full of peripeteia, περιπέτεια, Aristotle’s good old reversals of fortune and circumstances, which give the 2 ¼-hour evening without an interval its formal shape.
I can see why Cooke and Co decided to present it in this hard-on-the-bladder way. Even a brief loo break would interfere with the suspension of disbelief needed to enjoy the sight of the old dames and old geezers partnered by their extravagantly costumed younger selves. But from the moment a Ziegfeld-familiar, white-feathered showgirl descends a two-storey staircase on her scarily high heels, we’re hooked. As a page in the programme boasts, it’s a gigantic undertaking: “97 performances, 37 cast members, 21 musicians, 160 costumes, 200 production staff and apprentices.” The men are given their due – the four principals are not ciphers, and the male dancers are all given their sensational moments in the spotlights. But this is a musical made to let the ladies shine and glitter. From the diva, Heidi Schiller, played by a genuine diva, Josephine Barstow, to the large, mannish Hattie Walker (Di Botcher) who’s buried five husbands, to Solange Lafitte (Geraldine Fitzgerald), to the dance instructor Stella Deems (Dawn Hope) and the outrageous Carlotta Campion (Tracie Bennett), Sondheim gives them all words and music that let them show off their best.
Cooke’s version restores the tongue-twisting, high-kicking “The Story of Lucy and Jessie,” which I’m grateful to have seen – though, of course, the best scene is the Busby Berkeley-inspired dance number when Ms Staunton and Ms Dee change into their tap shoes, and the older women are joined by their young ghosts to frolic and wheel the enormous width of the stage.
You can catch the show yourself on 18 November live and broadcast to 2,000 cinemas in 52 countries: find your cinema at www.ntlive.com. A critic colleague asked why the state-subsidised NT should be using its assets to put on a show like this? The NT will receive £66.8 million over the four years from 2018, which represents a 3% cut, and the Arts Council contribution was only 15% of the total outgoings in the last financial period. So the company needs box-office hits like Follies to survive and to finance producing new plays and even some classics that are not obvious hot tickets.
Indeed, downstairs at the NT Lyttelton is a more experimental new play, one that has already had a run at the Lincoln Center Theater, and which is, unusually, going straight on to the West End, at the Harold Pinter Theatre from 2 October to 30 December. Though some of my colleagues have given it their maximum five-star rating, for me, J. T. Rogers’ Oslo is, I have to admit, slightly less captivating than Copenhagen, though I’m unable to compare it to the several plays that (I’m told) have Stockholm in their title.
This title refers to the negotiations between the State of Israel and the PLO, which began in 1992, concluded by an agreement between them being signed on 13 September 1993, with a ceremony on the White House lawn, and the award of the Nobel Peace Prize the next year to Yasser Arafat, Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres. Only it didn’t end in peace, as the PLO suspended the Olso agreement in 1994 when an Israeli settler killed 29 Palestinians in a mosque in Hebron; Rabin was assassinated by another settler the next year; and a second intifada took place in 2000.
This Oslo, though, is the feel-good story of how two Norwegians, a married couple, Mona Juul, and official in the Foreign Ministry, and Terje Rød-Larsen, pulled off the coup of conjuring up the Olso Agreement almost by themselves. They are played, superlatively, by Lydia Leonard and Toby Stephens, directed by the talented Bartlett Sher, against a clever, all-purpose drawing-room set designed by Michael Yeargan for the 900-seat Lyttleton, with its large stage.
There is a cast of 21 and the performances are uniformly excellent, but for one aspect, which disturbed me enough that I did not wholly enjoy the three hours (even though there was an interval this time). For a reason I cannot imagine, someone has decided that the Israelis and the Palestinians should speak accented English, even while shouting, which they do quite a lot of the time. The Palestinians were mostly intelligible, as they spoke, more or less, like educated Brits. The Israelis, on the other hand, were more difficult to understand than my long-deceased, poly-lingual Jewish grandmother. What on earth made the dialect and company voice coaches decide to make the Israelis speak with 4th generation Ashkenazi (i.e., cod-Yiddish) accents? Though I’m sure they were accurate, it must be very hard for the actors to do, and made it fiendishly difficult to understand what they were saying. Surely, nothing at all would be lost, and a great deal of J.T, Rogers’ dialogue would be preserved, if they all spoke RP or Oxbridge English? Give me the Sondheim, any time – at least the assumed American accents of the cast of Follies were perfectly intelligible. I’m afraid I found this upstairs/downstairs divide insuperable.