Follies at the National Theatre review: A love letter to Old Broadway

It is the crowning achievement of Rufus Norris’s tenure as artistic director at the National Theatre.

It is set in 1971 in New York as impresario Dimitri Weismann (Gary Raymond) throws one last party for the surviving members of his vaudeville shows before the decaying Weismann Follies theatre is knocked down to be replaced by an office block.

As showgirls from decades past sashay or totter down the stairs, according to their age, the lights go up for the last time.

Follies is not a cheap musical with its huge cast of former showgirls and their various partners doubled by their youthful selves appearing at the same time.

A love letter to Old Broadway, Stephen Sondheim and James Goldman’s musical is also a drama about wrong paths taken, fantasy romances and the “follies” that occur when the heart overrules the head.

The action centres on two couples, Sally Durant (Imelda Staunton) and her salesman husband Buddy (Peter Forbes) and Phyllis Rogers (Janie Dee) and Hollywood star Benjamin Stone (Philip Quast).

They play cat-and-mouse games throughout the evening as their younger selves reveal their youthful indiscretions.

Having carried a torch for Ben since her teens, Sally attempts to rekindle a romance that never was while Ben’s infidelities reveal the fragility of his marriage to Phyllis.

The songs are hugely evocative, conjuring ghosts of Broadway shows past. Broadway Baby is an Ethel Merman-esque belter, Beautiful Girls an Eddie Cantor-like hymn to female pulchritude.

Staunton’s rendition of the show’s most piercing song, Losing My Mind, is tear-jerking, even if she is not the most obvious fit for the role.

Dee is marvellous, her slinky glamour disguising a nest of anxieties and Quast is as close to Rossano Brazzi as it is possible to get.

Watched over by spectral showgirls in full sequinned and ostrich-feathered regalia, the cast, which includes opera veteran Josephine Barstow, plays out the musical to its bittersweet end.

Don’t miss.

National Theatre, until January 3, 2018. Tickets: 020 7452 3000