3rd November 2006, Royal
& Derngate Theatre,
Review by Emma Shane
© November 2006
Follies was a show I was not keen on seeing again after the wonderful Royal Festival Hall revival in August 2002. I felt that that production in general, and two roles in particular had been so near perfect that no other production could possibly compare. The two roles were those of Buddy Plummer and Phyllis Rogers Stone played by Henry Goodman and Louise Gold respectively. However, in the back of my mind was the idea that there might just be one other actress who could possibly rival Ms Gold in the role of Phyllis. Was it possible? And could this mixed Pro And Am production stand up to the wholly Pro Royal Festival Hall one? Well there was only one way to find out. This review will compare the production I have just seen to the earlier one, and it may well be that in some cases my comparisons might be a little unfair, given my affection for the 2002 production. But I do intended to state my own honest opinion.
This production opens with
the young Francesca Weissman, played by Natalina Malena, pushing Demitri
Weissman, played by Bryan Hall, on stage in an old fashioned
wheel-chair, that in itself a slightly different departure from the Royal
Festival Hall production. Also here, the staircase is already in place in
the centre of the stage, so there isnít too much seen shifting to be done.
Certainly more practical and perhaps less distracting. Presently a ghost
descends the stairs. Then Sally, played by Jan Hartley, enters, and the Follies
Overture starts up. Soon all the old girls are arriving, some with
their husbands, some alone. Some enter from the wings, others through the
auditorium. Of these I particularly noticed Emily and Theodore Whitman played
by Joan Carnell and Keith Green, mainly for Joanís enthusiastic
tapping as she entered. Itís so obvious which character she is. Sallyís husband
Buddy, played by Alex Giannini also enters, carrying a suitcase (he is a
salesman). About the last to arrive are Phyllis Rogers Stone and Ben Stone,
played by Louise Plowright and Julian Forsyth respectively. I
found Phyllisís first couple of lines took some adjusting to, I still had the
memory of the 2002 production in my mind, and I noticed that Louise
Plowright delivers them faster; but after the first couple of lines, it is
just fine, the actressís own wonderful stage presence captures my attention and
I find she made the part very much her own, as one should expect from an
actress of her calibre. Interesting to see this onetime West End lead, now a
principal in a mixed Pro-am production in
By the time Sally and Phyllis first encounter each other, I find myself entirely at ease watching and hearing Louise Plowrightís acting performance. She and Jan Hartley make Phyllis and Sallyís little reunion, reminiscing about their days as flatmates, a convincing joy to watch. Julian Forsyth too is establishing himself as Ben, describing Phyllis as ďAn extraordinary woman, endlessly excitingĒ. When it comes to him and Jan Hartley singing Donít Look At Me, both come across well; and Julian shows that he might well be an improvement on David Durham in the 2002 production. With the reunion in full swing, there is that wonderful moment when Phyllis and Buddy enter stage right in mid conversation when Buddy is reminding Phyllis of the crazy things they all used to do when they were younger, such as diving into a lake on a dare. Their entrance for this is a beauty, we hear a loud laugh off stage, and even at that moment, one knows, just knows, it is Louise Plowright, who then exclaims ďWell Iím sure I never did that...Ē as the pair enter. It is a gorgeous entrance, executed with brilliant comic timing. It is something quite startling, which for some strange reason I wouldnít have expected from Louise Plowright. Though I donít know why on earth not.
The four principals sing the classic Waiting For The Girls Upstairs. Wow! this number is just shear joy. I canít help grinning watching it, it is so good. During the two verses, Louise and Jan sit on the stairs, about halfway up, descending for the choruses where all the principals are down on the stage.† All four principals, plus the four young ghosts (played by Peter Caulfied, Hayley Flaherty, Savannah Stevenson, and, Oliver Tydman), perform well and make it very much their own; although as with the Royal Festival Hall production, the Principals are the stars of the number. But what makes this number, what gives it that extra lift is Louise Plowright. Itís a real thrill to hear her sing such a great Sondheim number as this. Here too she demonstrates one of her great strengths; one that was much in evidence in Mamma Mia. Although she was quite dominant in this number, at the same time, she never over dominates, it is very much a collective effort from the quartet. Itís lovely to see Louise once again bringing her true talents as a leading lady to the musical theatre stage.
On to the medley trio of Rain On The Roof, Ah Paree, and, Broadway Baby. Joan Carnell and Keith Green danced Rain On The Roof well; I did not think their singing, in particular Joan Carnellís as good as Myra Sands and Tony Kemp in the 2002 production, but one has to bear in mind that Ms Sands is a pretty accomplished singer (who has understudied the likes of Elaine Paige and Shelia Hancock). Where Joan and Keith really do score is with their characterisation of their parts which is really good. I donít really like the song Ah Paree, I donít think it is exactly one of Sondheimís best numbers. Somewhat surprisingly I am actually rather impressed by Susan Mooreís handling of the number. she plays it as very much a comedy number, and frequently her ďFrenchĒ accent wanders, in so doing she somehow manages to create a convincing character to sing the song. It is a very creative performance, which actually works rather well. Broadway Baby is the best known song of the trio, I found it hard to get the memory of Joan Savage in the 2002 production out of my mind, sheís a hard act to follow. Rita Gee plays the number as a much more ironic one, perhaps from the point of view of a chorus girl who never did quite make the big time; and she eventually succeeds in making the number her own. In a way her take on the number is actually a more appropriate one for doing in context.
On to Ben wondering why he didnít marry Sally; and a few other reflections on his life. These† include describing the conversation of some of the supposedly high-flyers he meets; The line ďThe opera singers, all they talk about is foodĒ gets quite a handful of laughs from the audience, I wonder why that is? Julian Forsyth follows this up by singing The Road You Didnít Take rather well. A huge improvement on David Durham in the 2002 Production, there is actually something in this character.† Meanwhile Louise Plowright is delivering some terrific lines about being careful with colours, with a lot of feeling. Her Phyllisís description of having taken a lover once, who played the drums also gets a handful of laughs. Then itís Jan Hartleyís turn to step into the spotlight to sing In Buddyís Eyes. She sings it well, if I think the song seems a little on the dull side then perhaps Iíve heard it a few too many times, what with galas and things. Sally ends up in Benís arms, at which moment Phyllis enters and sees them. In the 2002 production Phyllis had slunk onto the stage so subtly that until she crept up behind Sally and Ben, the audience was almost unaware of her entrance (which given who played her in that production seemed quite surprising). Tonight we have a completely contrasting performance. Louise Plowrightís Phyllis enters from stage left, and as she does so sees Sally and Ben, who are too wrapped up in each other to notice, but the audience is very aware of her as she marches up to Ben and taps him on the shoulder to get his attention, before dragging Sally away; making it quite obvious to the audience that she is trying to get Sally away from Ben. Ms Gold in the 2002 production played Phyllis with more subtly at this point, but Ms Plowrightís portrayal is equally good, just different. I donít know what it is about this particular entrance of Phyllisís but both Louises seem to have managed at this point to move in a manner uncannily like other performers. Tonight, Louise Plowright has a look in her eyes, when Phyllis enters and sees Sally & Ben that momentarily reminded me of a Diva briefly observing a liaison in an episode of The House Of Elliot. While when Louise Gold did it, she managed to convincingly sneak on stage in a manner not dissimilar to a creepy armed robber in an episode of East Enders in back in 1994! Strange that both should be thus in this particular scene?
With the reunion in full swing, Stella and four other old girls enter, to do Whose That Woman aka The Mirror Number. Phyllis sounds like she is really challenging Sally when she says ďIf you can I canĒ; as they take their places at either end of the chorus line (Phyllis on stage right, Sally on stage left). Does the way she says that (sounding as though she is determined not to let Sally get the better of her in any way) imply something more? Any production of Follies will obviously do this number in its own way, with choreography to suit that production (stage size, dancing skills of the cast etc). Initially, despite her very strong stage presence, Louise Plowrightís performance appears rather on the weak side. Fortunately as the number progresses she seems to gain confidence, was it the presence of the ghosts, or a muscle memory from The Hot Shoe Shuffle kicking in, for her dancing improves during the number, and ultimately she does manage to pull it off. Funnily enough the last time I saw this number done on stage was in a pantomime last Christmas, and Louise Plowright herself was singing it!
Continuing the reunion, Sandra (a character not included in the 2002 production), played by Sue Barbour, comes up the Phyllis, to mention they had the dressing tables next to each other, how deliciously wickedly does Louise deliver the lines ďYou never liked me. I never liked you eitherĒ, while suggesting that Phyllis is in a thoroughly bad temper. This soon becomes apparent in an interaction with Ben. A wonderful dialogue for a fine actress to deliver. Unfortunately some of the lines were cut, which I thought was a shame, if only because Louise Plowright would have said them so well. She makes the most of what is left of the dialog, though; Then exits with a waiter, played by Alain Terzoli. Her facial expressions, and to a certain extent his, are well worth watching, this part of the scene being stretched out a little for the purpose.
On to another classic Sondheim number, the great survivor anthem, Iím Still Hear, sung by the character of Carlotta, played by Barbara Cawthorn. Although I have heard some truly outstanding versions of this number (such as Millicent Martin on the Side By Side By Sondheim Original cast album, and, Louise Gold in the 1999 Chelmsford revival of Side By Side By Sondheim), which I would never hope to hear matched, and they werenít; Barbara Cawthorn does sing this a lot better than Diane Langton did in the 2002 revival of Follies. So well done there. Finally Julian Forsyth and Jan Hartley, joined by Savannah Stevenson conclude the first act with Too Many Mornings, and needless to say they do it justice, better in some ways than the 2002 production, simply because Julian Forsyth is such an improvement on David Durham.
Overall Act 1 was a case of so far so good. As far as acting is concerned, everyoneís characterisation is really good, in some places an improvement on their 2002 counterparts, particularly Julian Forsythís Ben. As for Buddy and Phyllis, well as actors yes they are competent in their roles. Louise Plowright especially, proves that she delivers this wonderful script (of which Phyllis has so many of the best lines) differently but every bit as well as Louise Gold did in 2002. Yes Act 1ís a success, but, the roles of Buddy and Phyllis get more challenging in Act 2, for it is here that both of them have two big, almost solo, numbers each. Can these two pull it off?
Stephen Sondheim and James Goldman didnít actually want an interval, they were required to put one in for commercial reasons, thus Act 2 opens where Act 1 ended. Buddy enters, sees Ben and Sally, and then launches into his first big number The Right Girl. Alex Gianni has a good powerful voice. Vocally alone he makes it his own. However, he clearly is not really a dancer, so choreographer Nick Winston has the ingenious idea of including Young Buddy, played by Oliver Tydman to dance the number while Alex sings; though Alex joins in a bit. This works surprisingly well.
Onto the scene between Carlotta and Ben, as with the 2002 production, they are sitting on the stairs. I thought that Barbara Cawthorn and Julian Forsyth did rather well with this scene, better than the 2002 production, where I seem to recall having some difficulty even recognising David Durham in it! Yes during this scene, I couldnít help wondering where Phyllis and Kevin (the young waiter she went off with) were. As soon as Ben and Carlotta exit, Phyllis and Kevin run on stage, stage right. Phyllis is being very flirtatious, in an abbasolutely fabulous kind of a way. I canít help wondering if like 2002 this is shades of Tanya and Pepper in Mamma Mia again. Only I donít know for sure whether Louiseís portrayal of Phyllis in this scene is anything like the way she played Tanya seducing Pepper in Mamma Mia. Louise Plowright does this scene with slightly more physical emotion than her 2002 counterpart. At the end of the scene Kevin exits, but Phyllis remains leaning against the proscenium arch, as Heidi and her ghost, played by Margaret Walker and Laura Pitt-Pulford respectively, enter, at the top of the stairs, for their duet. In many ways this number works better than it did in the 2002 revival. Part of this could well be due to its own performance, especially having the actress playing Young Heidi do her own singing. Not having too many distractions could also have helped (in the 2002 version the stage hands were busy moving the scenery during this number, tonight we have only Phyllis quietly exiting the stage). A lot may also be due to itís position in the show. In the 2002 revival it managed to get put after Could I Leave You (although credited in the programme as coming earlier). I think it actually works much better being put before that potential showstopper; because this way the audience are more likely to give it proper attention, than if it had come after a showstopper.
On to one of the highlights of
the entire show, Could I Leave You. I had long thought this was
exactly the sort of number that would suit Louise Plowrightís vocal
talents. She has a certain way with great, what I call, ďrevengeĒ songs. Songs
Get Along Without You Very Well, Donít Rain On My Parade,
and, The Winner Takes It All (well the way she does the latter).
Iíd bet she could do just as well with numbers like I Donít Remember
Christmas, or So Long Dearie if given an opportunity to
sing them, not to mention Just You Wait ĎEnry Higgins (which I
gather she may well have once done many years ago). Though I thought she would
do Could I Leave You well, yet I was still totally unprepared for
what she actually did do with it. I sat watching and listening to this open
mouthed with astonishment. It is such an amazing triumph! She makes the number
very much her own. Though she sings the great line about Ten Elderly Men
From the UN in more or less the customary flowing manner with more or less
equal emphasis on all the syllables, even so she manages to put her own stamp
on the line and indeed the whole song. I donít know how Louise Plowright
does it, but this is quite simply the best rendition of this song I have ever
heard! Better than: David Kernan (Side By Side By Sondheim
Thank goodness such a spectacular showstopper was followed by something more general, the four principals and their ghosts wandering on stage arguing with each other. I particularly noticed Louise Plowrightís Phyllis grabbing Hayley Flahertyís left arm, with her own right, it was kind of shades of Louise Gold trying to slap Kerry Jay in the 2002 version (and in fact grabbing her by the shoulders on the last night). In this production, as the scene ends all eight exit together.
Loveland looks more colourful than in 2002. The Folly Of Loveland sets the scene, including a scantily clad male dressed as Cupid, and a variety of chorus girls in outlandish costumes. The last of these wears a white dress with a huge skirt, towards the end of the number she lifts it up, and Hayley Flaherty and Peter Caulfield, all dressed in white, crawl out from underneath, to sing Youíre Gonna Love Tomorrow. Their performance was perfectly satisfactory, but for the first time, I found myself actually missing Kerry Jay in the 2002 revival. Hayley Flaherty is primarily a dancer, and although she sings nicely, she does not have as strong a voice as Kerry Jay (who was primarily a singer). At the conclusion of the number Oliver Tydman enters as Young Buddy, pulling on stage a bed, on which is sitting Young Sally played by Savannah Stevenson. They are dressed on white for Love Will See Us Through Till Something Better Comes Along. Again they sing perfectly well, but are more dancers than singers, I think. Both numbers come across decently, and are by no means bad. But now here comes some real challenges....
First up, in front of the drapes, Alex Giannini stars in Buddyís Folly: The-God-Why-Donít-You-Love-Me Blues. Trying to follow in Henry Goodmanís footsteps in this number alone is tough enough, when you also consider some of the wonderful people whoíve sung it in Side By Side By Sondheim, it becomes even harder. Nevertheless Alex Giannini really does try to make it very much his own, with a few tricks up his sleeve; Namely, trying his hand at ventriloquism, with the aid of a couple of hand-puppets, rather than two actual girls. He does have an obvious talent for comedy; and for putting on different voices. The puppets were rather inflexible so it is impossible to tell if he was actually good with them (after one has seen such performers as Louise Gold, and, Julie Atherton it is difficult to watch anyone puppeteering live on stage with an uncritical eye). Anyway Alex Giannini does succeed in making this number his own. The puppets had an advantage over real girls, in that Alex being an experienced performer could voice them in such a way that their parts were never overdone. Sometimes when you have young in experienced women singing in this number they can go a bit too over the top with it. Above all it is his own comic talents that lead him to pull this number off.
Next up, the drapes are raised as Jan Hartley stars in Sallyís Folly: Losing My Mind. It has been said that many singers are afraid to do this song, because they donít want to be compared to Julia McKenzie. However, I think that Jan Hartley proves tonight (just like Kathryn Evans did in the 2002 revival of Follies, and Liz Roberson in the Side By Side By Sondheim 25th Anniversary Gala) that singers really should not be afraid of trying to make this number their own. There is a very very good chance of them succeeding, as indeed Jan Hartley certainly does.
Now for another hefty challenge, itís Louise Plowrightís turn to face, what I think is the toughest challenge in the show Phyllisís Folly: The Story Of Lucy And Jessie. Ė A number which in 1987 even got dropped from Follies and replaced with Ah But Underneath, because it is perhaps a tall order to expect an actress to act well enough to play Phyllis, sing well enough to handle Could I Leave You, and then have to dance to a high standard in The Story of Lucy And Jessie. So would they do the original number tonight? As soon as the band strike up, itís clear that they are doing it, and Nick Winston has come up with some innovative choreography. Louise Plowright steps out of the wings at the top of the staircase stage left, with her back to the audience. She is clad in a green show dress with a short skirt (that has lots of slits in it). She gives a bit of a wiggle (a bit like she and some of her Mamma Mia Dynamos did in Dancing Queen), and then turns to fact the audience. Swiftly two chorus boys in black suits come on to join her, they handle the bulk of the complex dancing while she sings. Her own dance steps are kept well within her capabilities. Presently four chorus girls enter, in black. Louise runs off into the wings (stage right), and Hayley Flaherty enters (stage right), wearing a very similar dress. She dances among the chorus, taking the lead, for the major dancing part of this number. Then Louise returns to the stage, and embraces Haley as the number ends. Itís a very interesting way of doing this number. Demonstrating how it is perfectly possible to still include this number even when the actress playing Phyllis is not much of a dancer, get her ghost to stand in. This has a certain advantage in that when she embraces her ghost at the end it was as though Phyllis is reconciled with herself. Thus the dance number managed to convey in mime exactly what happens to Phyllis during the course of the show itself. Very neat.
Finally itís Julian Forsythís turn to star, Benís Folly: Live Love And Laugh. I canít remember much about the staging of this number, only that it comes across ever so much better than the 2002 revival, of course in the 2002 version David Durham had had the disadvantage of trying to follow a real showstopper. But I think tonightís production actually does do this number better anyway. At the end he calls out to Phyllis, and drops onto his knees. She comes over to him, and picking his jacket up off the floor, puts helps him into it and to his feet (remaining on hers all the time). Delivering lines matter of factly, at her most serious. Meanwhile Buddy helps Sally to her feet, and all exit.
The cast come on to take their bows, in something like order of precedence, and then the entire cast link arms in one big long chorus line to sing the finale reprise of Beautiful Girls. This was more inclusive and chorographically safer than the 2002 production finale, but the latter, worked at the time and, was also very good. Thus the show ends to great applause.
in all a good show. The company of: Suzy Bastone, Darren J Fawthrop,
Katie Lovell, Laura Pitt-
how did this production compare to The Royal Festival Hallís 2002 revival? On
the whole surprisingly well. The ensemble were a mixed bunch. Some
understandably though perfectly watchable and engaging were not quite as good
as their 2002 counterparts, some (such Hattie and Stella) were quite different
to their 2002 counterparts, but in the end succeeded in making the role their
own. After all different does not necessarily mean better or worse. However,
two, namely Barbara Cawthornís Carlotta, and, Susan Mooreís
Solonge really deserve singling out for actually being better than their 2002
counterparts. Susan Moore in particular managed to sing a Sondheim song
that I am not to keen on and actually do something interesting with it. The
four young ghosts if not quite as good singers, as their 2002 counterparts,
were certainly good dancers, especially Oliver Tydman and Haley
Flaherty. As for Nick Winstonís choreography. How did that compare
to David Needhamís in 2002? Well David Needham had some casting
advantages, in that his principals were all pretty well trained dancers. Nick
Winston shows himself to be very creative at making use of the people heís
got, staging numbers in such a way as to get round problems, most notably in
working Young Buddy and Young Phyllis into the dance routines of Buddy and
Phyllisís respective big dance numbers. Given the nature and subject matter of
the show this was actually a brilliant solution to the problem of having
principals whose dancing skills were not quite up to the standard needed. So
choreographically the two productions were quite different, both are successful
in different ways. I loved what David Needham did with The Mirror
Number and Lucy And Jessie, but I was also ever so
impressed by the way Nick Winston made The Right Girl,
and, Lucy And Jessie work in this production. Although I
But did the two principals I was really concerned about, Buddy and Phyllis, compare? The short answer is more or less. When it comes to Buddy, Henry Goodman in the 2002 production was always going to be a hard act to follow. Alex Giannini starts of with the disadvantage of not being as much of a dancer as Mr Goodman. However, he is clearly a good comic actor, very much in the vain of Neil McCaul and of course Henry Goodman. He also seems to have a good deal of sense, perhaps his well directed too, and manages to make the part his own. His singing on The Right Girl was very strong, comparable to Mr Goodmanís, yes. While his Buddyís Blues was so totally different to anyone elseís version of Buddyís Blues, that with his comedy gifts he made the song his own, and got a lot of laughs. So while I think ultimately Goodman is unbeatable; Gianni did very well making the part sufficiently his own, that for at least as long as one was actually watching this production of Follies one would not compare him to anyone else; which I think should be counted as a success.
After the surprising delights of the glorious Louise Gold in the 2002 production, I knew I would find it very hard indeed to watch anyone else as Phyllis. The last time I saw someone else play a role I had already seen Gold perform to great effect, they didnít win me over at all. Yet if there was an actress who could come close, especially with the role of Phyllis, then Iíd take a chance on seeing Louise Plowright try. So how did she measure up? Well letís start with the acting, James Goldman wrote Phyllis some terrific lines. Both Louises deliver these brilliantly. Gold and Plowright deliver the lines in ways that are quite different, but they equally good. Their angle on the character is rather different. Gold portrayed Phyllis as hating her husband, and yet determined to make the best of the situation. She gave the character a harsh shell, but at the same time her own philosophical upbeat nature. Plowright by contrast portrayed Phyllis as being still passionately in love with her husband, a woman who will do anything to get her man to reciprocate that love. She made the character lighter and more flirtatious than Gold had done. What the pair of them prove by their acting, is that it is perfectly possible, given a good enough intelligent actress, who thinks about the character she is portraying, to play the same part in totally two different ways, and yet both are absolutely convincing. There is no single right way to portray Phyllis, there may well be wrong ways. But there is more than one way to act this character well. So for acting they are both completely different and yet as good as each other. What about the numbers? These two actresses, named Louise, have strong voices and generally they sure donít need to be told to ďSing out....Ē. In Act 1 Phyllis features in three numbers, in which their performances are different to each other but always good. However these are ensemble numbers. The real test is Phyllisís two wonderful solos; each scores her own tour de force with one or other of them. When I saw Gold perform Could I Leave You, I thought she proved herself to be as good as Millicent Martin or Louise Plowright at doing great revenge songs of that nature. But I hadnít heard what Plowright could actually do with that song. Lucy And Jessie presents another problem. Gold was fantastic in that because she is a seriously well trained stage dancer (Arts Ed from the age of 11). Itís unusual to find an actress who can not only act and sing Phyllis but who can also dance the role that well, which is perhaps why it has so often been dropped in favour of Ah But Underneath. Yet with the help of Nick Winston and Hayley Flahtery, Louise Plowrightís Phyllis demonstrates how this number can be made to work with an actress who isnít that much of a dancer.
†So having seen and heard them both Louises perform Phyllisís solos, how do the compare? When it comes to Lucy And Jessie, Louise Gold wins hands down, largely of course for her superior dancing skills, but also for her joie de vivre. However with Could I Leave You, Louise Plowrightís tour de force triumphs over everyone Iíve ever heard sing this song. So to conclude, who wins? Well itís a close thing. I think Gold just wins for her dancing abilities, but if Plowright comes second then it is a very close second. On acting alone (before one even considers the musical numbers) I very much doubt there are many if any other actresses who could come anywhere near matching Louise Gold and Louise Plowright in this magnificent superbitch-who-isnít-really-a-bitch role.† Does Louise Plowright succeed in making the role of Phyllis her own in this production? Well as Phyllis would say ďBet your assĒ she does. And overall, when it comes to seeing this production of Follies, to quote a lyric Iím so glad I came.
Off Site Links:
To read my review of the 2002 Royal Festival Hall production of Follies, please click here.
Geoff Amblerís Behind-The-Scenes account of this production of Follies: On the Stephen Sondheim Societyís Website:† http://www.sondheim.org/php/news.php?id=2102 . And on the Reviewsgate website: http://www.reviewsgate.com/index.php?name=News&catid=&topic=14