Theatre 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