WhatsOnStage Logo
Review Round-Ups

Did critics lose their minds over Follies?

The Sondheim musical opened at the National Theatre and runs through to January

WhatsOnStage logo

Sarah Crompton, WhatsOnStage


"The show's strength lies less in its spectacle than in the calibrated detail of every single performance, the way each turn in the spotlight becomes an admission of self. Tracie Bennett turns "I'm Still Here" into a conversational confession as much as an anthem of survival; in Di Botcher's hands, "Broadway Baby" is a wry look back by a woman in a trouser suit; Josephine Barstow makes "One Last Kiss" a soaring ballad of longing.

"Nowhere is this dramatic truthfulness more vivid than in the playing of the central quartet. As Sally, Imelda Staunton initially enters as a bubbly, disappointed housewife; as the show progresses, in songs such as "In Buddy's Eyes" and "Losing My Mind", she coruscatingly portrays the demented desolation that lies beneath. Peter Forbes finds similar pain in the tragedy of the awkward Buddy's devotion to a woman who can never love him.

"Follies may not be an uplifting musical and it's certainly not a perfect one. But in its devastating picture of the way the dreams of youth turn to the bitterness of age, it is a truly terrific one."

Michael Billington, The Guardian


"It is quite simply breathtaking. Cooke gives every character a shadow-self but takes the duality theme even further by reminding us that each of the main characters is really two people. Imelda Staunton is unforgettable as Sally, presenting us at first with a cheerily smiling soul: her delivery of "In Buddy's Eyes", in which Sally self-deludingly believes she is adored by her husband, had a radiant happiness that brought a lump to my throat. By the end, as she sings the Gershwin-influenced "Losing My Mind", Staunton shows that Sally is a lovelorn wreck as her voice seems to dissolve on the song's final syllable.

"The danger of Follies is that it can easily succumb to nostalgia, a tribute to a vanished showbiz glamour. But, while Vicki Mortimer's design combines theatrical debris and peacock splendour and Bill Deamer's choreography evokes the period precision of classic dance routines, the production never lets you forget the astringent sadness beneath the spectacle."

Henry Hitchings, Evening Standard


"This production by Dominic Cooke certainly isn't the most opulent there's been, with a cast of thirty-seven and a twenty-one-piece orchestra (as against fifty and twenty-six in the original 1971 staging). But it's lucid, precisely choreographed by Bill Deamer, and above all gorgeously performed.

"It's the unsettling quality of Sondheim's score and lyrics that makes Follies such a distinctive musical. Blending clever pastiche with passages of uncomfortable introspection, it's a genuinely fascinating study of the dangers of nostalgia. "

Tim Bano, The Stage


"Sondheim's deft imitation of Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, pastiche without ever being parody, tricks us into thinking that Follies is an old-fashioned musical. In fact, it kicks that yearning optimism into the gutter. Unlike other backstage musicals, Follies shows what happens when the scenery is dismantled, the adrenaline dissipated, the golden years dented and tarnished.

"Past productions of Follies have tended to focus on the show's theme of regret, of old age reflecting on wasted youth. But Cooke makes this production less about the show's themes, and much more about the show itself. He doesn't ignore its reputation as one of the greatest musicals ever written, he celebrates it. The result is some Platonic ideal of Follies – and two hours 15 minutes of goosebumps."

Ann Treneman, The Times


"Early on in this tribute to the old-fashioned Broadway revue, a character exclaims: "It's the cat's pyjamas." And so it is. This production is wildly traditional by the National Theatre's standard and the costumes, especially, are a joy. So this particular pair of cat's pyjamas would include a white ostrich feather headdress, balanced out by a tutu-type skirt of the same, with a galaxy of diamante in between."

Dominic Cavendish, The Telegraph

"The early roll-call of numbers, accompanied by the ebb and flow of genteel nostalgic reminiscence, affirms that Sondheim knows this world inside out, yet the characterisation suffers from a rather cardboard quality. Even that of the central quartet: Imelda Staunton's nervous Sally, married to unfaithful (yet adoring) salesman Buddy, while hankering increasingly openly, drunkenly and dementedly after former politician and old flame Ben, the latter's withering, sophisticate wife Phyllis looking on in hurt disdain.

"Bit by bit, though, the sense that we're here to admire, in an off-hand way, a cavalcade of stylish turns – book-writer James Goldman kept the "plot" as slender as a flying-wire – departs, to be replaced by a sense of raw identification, awe at the way everything threads together and joy at some of the best Sondheim songs in the canon. "

Follies runs at the National Theatre until 3 January. It will have an NTLive international screening on 16 November.