National Theatre: Booking until January 2018

On Thursday 16th November Follies at The National Theatre was screened live to cinemas across the UK and internationally, and I was very excited to see the screening at my local cinema.

This was my first experience of seeing a live show at the cinema and based on this I will definitely be doing it again. It’s a fantastic way of experiencing the buzz of live theatre for a very reasonable price and without having to travel far. Being down in the South West I tend to miss a lot of new theatre in London and other cities, meaning that when I do have the opportunity to be in London I often choose to see the big, longer running shows that I have wanted to see for a long time and which I am sure I will enjoy. They usually are the shows that fit within my favoured genre: musical theatre. However; looking at the listings of live theatre screenings at my local cinema for the coming year I can already pick out a number of shows that stand out to me which otherwise I probably wouldn’t see. It will be interesting to expand my horizons and see some plays in the New Year thanks to these live screenings.

At first I was sceptical as to how the energy on the stage and in the auditorium would be translated through the screen to me, sat in a small cinema in quiet Cornwall. I wondered if the music would still make me ‘swell’ as I like to describe it when I have the experience in the theatre, and if the enormity of the Olivier Theatre could be captured through the camera. Both of these were achieved, and the atmosphere was actually surprisingly immersive. Hearing the audience at the National clapping and cheering through the surround sound in the cinema gave me a feeling of being transported. At times I could forget about the screen in front of me; I was there at the theatre having this experience first-hand.

The benefit of seeing the show in the cinema was the opportunity of seeing the expressions of the cast so close up. I think that really helped in understanding the emotions that the characters were going through. Sometimes in the theatre when sat further back it’s hard to see beyond the heightened expressions of the actors. It could go unnoticed that behind the heighted mask of expression there is real, raw emotion being felt. Whether that emotion is triggered because they are relating their character or song to something personal, or that they are so connected to their character that they are experiencing emotion with another level of depth; unless you are sat in the front row it is easy to miss this detail. The cameraman captured these moments of raw emotion perfectly. The camera focussed on exactly what I imagined I would have focussed on if I had seen the show in the theatre. There weren’t any annoying moments when I wanted to move the camera to see what was happening elsewhere on the stage. I had wondered if the main protagonists would get more screen time and if members of the ensemble would be slightly ignored. Thankfully this was not the case.

To describe the story of Follies would be difficult because it’s actually less of a story and more of an insight. It is a string of events spanning over an evening which are bound together by songs composed by Stephen Sondheim. The characters are connected by their pasts. For the audience, it’s like being a fly on the wall at a party and observing the drama that takes place over the course of the evening as the guests get tipsy and reminisce the past.

The production, written by James Goldman and with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim originally opened on Broadway in 1971. The duo was inspired by an article about a reunion of former showgirls from the Ziegfeld Follies a series of extravagant multi-act shows produced by Florenz Ziegfeld which combined music and dance that were popular on Broadway from 1907 to 1931. It is from this article, as well as a photograph from 1960 of an American actress looking very glamorous as she stands amongst the rubble of a half demolished theatre, that the foundations of Follies was built.

Now staged at the National Theatre, Imelda Staunton leads a phenomenal star-studded cast of 37, as the ex-Weismann girls gather on the stage of the Weismann Theatre one final time for a reunion before the theatre is to be demolished the following morning. The ladies and their husbands reminisce over ‘the good old days’ of their youth, whilst ghosts of their younger selves re-live their past experiences. Over the course of the evening being back in the theatre of their youth seems to have a time-reversing effect on the four main protagonists; Sally, Phyllis, Ben and Buddy and as they revert back to acting half their age their relationships (both past and present), are tested to the limit.  

Director Dominic Cooke chose to play Follies straight through as Stephen Sondheim intended, without an interval but it actually worked very well with the structure of the show anyway.  The events take place in the space of one evening and a lot of the time there is much happening at once so there’s a lot to look at. It feels important that the audience need to be attached for the whole duration in order to be fully immersed and to keep up with what’s happening. Coming back into the show having had an interval could be quite confusing. Especially considering that it did take me a while to warm up to what was happening on stage.

The set was absolutely phenomenal and clever in its construction; I actually lost count of how many different elements there were; just when I thought I’d seen everything something even more outstanding would come out. Yet this plethora of a set all represented different elements of one building: the fictitious Weismann Theatre. Each angle was beautiful and stunning in its creation and it was a joy to be able to admire its detail from the close proximity that the cinema allows.  

Sondheim himself identified this show as not really having a plot. It is essentially about a group of people getting drunk one night, remembering the past and then working relationships through. That being said, the show is surprisingly compelling and a delight to watch. The character of Dimitri Weismann shares the same passion as Ziegfeld did for the Follies. Through the immense scale and attention to detail of the set and costumes of a fictitious theatre, this show recreates the atmosphere and grandeur of real theatres such as the Ziegfeld when it was a place alive with performance and gives an insight to the Ziegfeld days and the idea of glorifying America.  Even when the building is shown as crumbling and neglected, there is still a hint of what was once something spectacular.

Follies has been extremely popular throughout its run at the National Theatre this year. If you get the chance to see the show before it closes in January then definitely go! It’s quite a different kind of show, but wonderfully charming and outstanding in its production, design, and execution.   



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