(Michael Billington’s article appeared in the Guardian, 9/6.)
Although it has legions of admirers, Follies has often seemed a problematic show. Stephen Sondheim’s music and lyrics combine emotional pain and witty pastiche with a deftness that James Goldman’s book never quite seems to match. But Dominic Cooke’s superb revival, reverting to the structure of the 1971 original and ditching the optimistic conclusion that marred the 1987 West End production, gives this bleakly festive musical a poetic unity I didn’t realise it possessed.
The paradox is that Cooke achieves unity by stretching, to the limit, the show’s obsession with duality. That idea of doubleness is built into the Sondheim-Goldman concept. We are invited to witness a grand reunion of veteran Follies showgirls in a Broadway theatre on the verge of demolition; in the background we see the ostrich-plumed incarnations of their younger selves. At the same time we are privy to a double marital crisis. Well-heeled New Yorkers Ben and Phyllis are in as much trouble as their old Phoenix-based chums, Buddy and Sally. What brings the crisis to a head is that Sally has a lifelong yen for Ben that has never been resolved.
The intermingling of past and present is an idea many dramatists have used, notably Tom Stoppard in The Invention of Love, where the older AE Housman views the sexual hesitancy of his younger self with a rueful regret. Here, Cooke’s production lends the idea extra poignancy by making this interaction a two-way process: at one point, Zizi Strallen as the young Phyllis seems about to dissolve in tears as she gazes at the dyspeptic solitude of Janie Dee as her older but no wiser self.