Note: A belated review of the evening performance on Saturday 23rd September 2017.
I feel like I've been waiting for this revival for forever. Indeed for years, inspired mainly by the correspondence between the line that the Weissmann theatre is to be a car park (though in this version office block) and the Yes Minister joke about the National's building that the architect was given a knighthood so no one could say the building looked like a car park I've thought the National should do it. That it should be the often dismal Norris era that finally sees this revival was a pleasant surprise. Fortunately, it met all my high hopes.
From my seat on the side of the central Stalls block I found the show superbly made to fit the Olivier space. Vicki Mortimer's straightforward set works well. We see a central wall with an archway on one side of which the theatre's advertising lights are sometimes illuminated. To the left the stairway for the descent of the girls, to the right a muddled, dimly lit ruin of rubble and red theatre seats. Often, though, the central playing area is bare but this focuses attention on the drama – Cooke finds an intimacy that can elude in this space.
The finest aspect of Cooke's direction is the detailed interactions he draws from the very beginning between the old and young pairings of each character. The ghosts are everywhere in these ruins – watching, often in horror at what their older selves have become (though equally as the narrative unfolds that discomfort can be reversed – watch Philip Quast (Ben) and Janie Dee (Phyllis) as their younger selves sing You're Gonna Love Tomorrow). Cooke persistently finds emotional punch from the slightest change of facial expression, touch or absence of it, or the apparently simple and yet so difficult to bring off act of looking. Indeed, many of the most heartbreaking moments come from watching not the spoken interactions but the expressions of the watchers. And yet, it is important to note that it is not all bleak – Cooke doesn't lose the enjoyment of the wisecracks, or those moments, few though they may be, of fleeting pleasure in some of the relivings of past glories – the joy of Dawn Hope's Stella when she's successfully recreated the mirror number is especially lovely. Nor is this a show with no hope at all – almost the last image one sees is a tentative, powerfully moving, taking of hands.
Bill Deamer's choreography further supports all this – there's some lovely witty moments, for example in Rain on the Roof alongside the scene-stealing builds of the big dance numbers like Who's That Woman and The Story of Lucy and Jessie.
The cast is quite simply exceptional. I expected Imelda Staunton to be magnificent as Sally, and she was – brittle, over-excited, desperate and then, in Losing My Mind showing that you can devastate with a look and the smallest gestures. I don't think I'd encountered Janie Dee previously, but she was a joy to watch throughout – her relentlessness is both funny and a little terrible – most notably in the great speech I'd forgotten that fires line after line at the helpless Ben to the final damning question “are you completely dead inside?” One sees all too clearly why Ben has, as he says late on, always been a little afraid of her. The slow collapse of Quast's self-possessed facade is spot on. Peter Forbes's Buddy rises superbly to the speed/word challenges of Buddy's Blues, but the moment I shall not soon forget came in The Right Girl as he dances, hauntingly, with his younger self. That quartet of their younger selves – Fred Haig (Buddy), Zizi Strallen (Phyllis), Alex Young (Sally), Adam Rhys-Charles (Ben) – have in some ways the harder task in that they have to conjure so much with often little in the way of spoken lines to go on. The casting helps here – they completely convince (as is the case across the company) as younger selves, as does Cooke's already mentioned direction, but enormous credit is also owing to the performers for finding such life in these ghosts.
And then we come to the supporting Follies girls. All of them give excellent performances, not a number is less than very fine, but several deserve particular mention. The biggest revelation to me was One More Kiss. I've never quite got this number on previous hearings – recordings rarely seem to get quite the right match between the young and old Heidis, and the old Heidis also tend to sound strained. Here Josephine Barstow and Alison Langer nail it. Barstow sings with a control and beauty which is stunning. Her scenes are few and scattered, but she makes them into a deeply moving whole. As she stands forbiddingly straight backed, head turned away, singing “Never look back” with Weismann on the stairs, in shadow behind, it's impossible not to think of her earlier line - “I've missed you Dimitri”, or to feel the effort she expends to live out that lyric, and the emotional price paid. It's a scene worth the price of admission alone. Di Botcher's Hattie, meanwhile, finds freshness in that familiar standard Broadway Baby – so that by the end of the number the stage commanding Follies girl has reappeared exhilaratingly from within the plump, garrulous older woman. And finally there's Tracie Bennett's Carlotta brittle but unbowed in that tough number I'm Still Here.
Supporting all this is the sizeable orchestra, occasionally just visible at the back of the stage, under the perfectly judged direction of Nigel Lilley, the musical excellence matched by superb Sound Design work from Paul Groothuis – at least from my seat the balance was spot on throughout (not something that I've always been able to say about shows in the Olivier), not a word of the lyrics, so vital in this complex narrative, went astray.
This is the third staging of this marvellous show I've managed to see, but the first by a fully professional line-up. It brought home to me afresh the emotional richness of the piece. It struck me that it is interestingly much closer to Merrily We Roll Along than I'd previously registered and it seemed odd to me on this viewing that the latter remains regarded as so much more a problem piece given that similarity. Most of all though, I just felt profoundly lucky to have seen this. This makes my fourth standing ovation of the year (preceded by the EIF Peter Grimes, the NT Angels in America and Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill). It might be said that I'm going soft. I prefer to think that I've been lucky in seeing several truly exceptional shows this year. I so cherished this it may be one of the even rarer number of shows I try to see a second time. In the meantime, some tickets seem to be still available – if you haven't yet been snap them up now. This is unmissable. Surely worthy of a transfer (if the economics can be made to add up) but failing that the NT must get this cast into a recording studio. This exceptional evening should be thus preserved.