The­atre Paul Bai­ley

The Oldie - - NEWS - PAUL BAI­LEY

Do­minic Cooke’s re­vival of the mu­si­cal Follies, with a book by James Gold­man and mu­sic and lyrics by Stephen Sond­heim, has to be de­scribed as de­fin­i­tive.

Cooke uses the enor­mous stage at the Olivier The­atre to of­ten won­drous ef­fect, es­pe­cially when Dim­itri Weis­mann’s show­girls in their se­quined cos­tumes are hoof­ing it in the ruins of the old vaude­ville the­atre on Broad­way that will be de­mol­ished the fol­low­ing day. Weis­mann is, of course, Florenz Ziegfeld, the man whose name is for­ever as­so­ci­ated with the word ‘follies’.

The show is con­cerned with two cou­ples – Ben and Phyl­lis Stone and Sally and Buddy Plum­mer – who have gal­lantly come along to the re­union party Weis­mann has or­gan­ised for the sur­viv­ing stars who once sang and danced there. They can’t see their younger selves singing and danc­ing along­side them, mak­ing the prom­ises they used to make, say­ing the things they now wish they’d left un­said. One fan­ci­ful critic has called Follies the ‘only Prous­tian mu­si­cal’ and the observation has a scin­tilla of truth in it.

It would be easy, and facile, to dis­miss Follies as sen­ti­men­tal nos­tal­gia. It isn’t sen­ti­men­tal in the least and it’s nos­tal­gic only in the sense that its prin­ci­pal char­ac­ters have reached that point in late mid­dle age when the past is a dis­ap­point­ment and the fu­ture an un­pleas­ing, if not dis­mal, prospect.

When Imelda Staunton, as Sally, sings ‘In Buddy’s Eyes’, which presents the rosiest pic­ture of her un­happy mar­riage, to Ben, with whom she is still in love, it’s im­pos­si­ble not be moved by the mis­ery be­hind her de­ter­mined ra­di­ance.

There’s a great scene when Phyl­lis, com­mand­ingly acted and sung by Janie Dee, turns on her heart­less hus­band in the bril­liant ‘Could I Leave You?’, a with­er­ing cat­a­logue of Ben’s short­com­ings. Sond­heim’s lyrics here might have been penned in acid.

Follies has un­der­gone many re­vi­sions since its pre­miere in 1971. Gold­man was tin­ker­ing with the script un­til his death in 1998, and Sond­heim has writ­ten ex­tra songs to ac­com­mo­date the tal­ents of dif­fer­ent per­form­ers. Do­minic Cooke has taken the best el­e­ments of the rewrites and in­cor­po­rated them into what now looks like a mas­ter­piece.

Di Botcher makes ‘Broad­way Baby’ sound poignant as well as brazen; Tra­cie

Ben­nett turns ‘I’m Still Here’ into a caus­tic lament, and the great mezzo-so­prano Josephine Bar­low ex­udes Vi­en­nese charm as Heidi, re­call­ing the ro­mance of yesteryear. Vicki Mor­timer’s set and cos­tumes, Paule Con­sta­ble’s light­ing, and the band con­ducted by Nigel Lil­ley all de­serve the high­est praise.

James Gra­ham, au­thor of This House, that funny, dis­turb­ing ac­count of West­min­ster be­tween 1974 and 1979, has turned his wry at­ten­tion to Fleet Street.

Ink is con­cerned with the rise of Ru­pert Mur­doch, fol­low­ing his pur­chase of the ail­ing news­pa­per, the Sun, from Hugh Cudlipp, chair­man of the Daily Mir­ror, in 1969. Ev­ery­body thought he was mad, es­pe­cially Larry Lamb, who worked for Cudlipp and was proud of his pa­per’s sup­port for work­ing peo­ple and the Labour Party.

In the open­ing scenes, the wily Mur­doch treats him to din­ner at Rules, where Lamb learns the Aus­tralian busi­ness­man is a devo­tee of the story.

Mur­doch is more in­ter­ested in the ques­tion ‘What next?’ than ‘Why?’, which, of ne­ces­sity, de­mands an ex­pla­na­tion. Lamb lets it be known that he is a man with prin­ci­ples, like his es­teemed work­ing-class fa­ther. ‘I want to dis­rupt this street,’ Mur­doch says. He will give the pub­lic what it wants. And what he wants is Lamb’s ex­per­tise to be­gin the process of trans­form­ing the Sun into the biggest­selling tabloid in Bri­tain.

Gra­ham is too clever a drama­tist to re­sort to moral­is­ing – he leaves that to the colum­nists and jour­nal­ists who are paid to pass judg­ment. What he does best is to present what hap­pened and when in as dis­in­ter­ested a man­ner as pos­si­ble. The re­sult of his method is fre­quently hi­lar­i­ous: like the Sun’s po­lit­i­cal edi­tor, Bernard Shrim­s­ley, in­form­ing his fel­low hacks his favourite hobby is trans­lat­ing the lesser nov­els of Zola.

The first act is a hec­tic af­fair, af­ter Lamb has ac­cepted Mur­doch’s chal­lenge, with the cast rush­ing to and fro, and up and down, Bunny Christie’s in­ge­nious set, crammed with poky of­fices and an­te­rooms. The sec­ond half is much more som­bre. Muriel Mckay, wife of Mur­doch’s ad­vi­sor and man­ag­ing di­rec­tor Sir Alick, is kid­napped. Lamb, trust­ing his own in­stinct, puts the story on the front page, mak­ing a sen­sa­tion­al­ist meal out of it. She is bru­tally mur­dered and dis­posed of.

The play ends with the ar­rival of the page three ‘stunna’, an idea even Mur­doch ini­tially found taste­less. Ber­tie Carvel plays Mur­doch with a stab­bing fin­ger and a voice that some­times seems to be com­muning with it­self. There’s no hint of car­i­ca­ture, while Richard Coyle, as the – dare one say it? – sac­ri­fi­cial Lamb, of­fers a com­pelling por­trait of a man in a con­stant state of self-doubt.

Follies will be screened in selected cin­e­mas around Bri­tain on 16th Novem­ber

Ink inc: Ber­tie Carvel as Ru­pert Mur­doch

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